Nicaragua: Lessons of a country that did not finish its revolution – Part One

At the end of the 1970s, the people of Nicaragua rose up and overthrew one of the most hated tyrants in the world, Anastacio Somoza. It was an inspiring revolution that raised the hopes of many workers and youth around the world. Today Venezuela raises similar hopes. But the Nicaraguan revolution was defeated. What lessons can we draw from this today?


Very few people can remember a more inspiring revolution during the 1980s than the Sandinista Revolution. At the end of the 1970s, the people of the second poorest country in the Americas rose up and overthrew one of the most hated tyrants in the world, Anastacio Somoza.

The achievements of that movement were immense and captured the imagination of young people and workers all over the world in a way never seen since the victory of the Cuban Revolution. 1.5 million hectares of land were distributed to 200,000 poor families, organised in individual holdings and cooperatives (data provided by the University of Oregon). Illiteracy dropped from 60% to 14% in two years. Literacy campaigns sent brigades of young teachers and students to end the traditional backwardness of the Nicaraguan masses. Public healthcare dramatically improved as well.

Above all the Nicaraguan masses showed that when the workers and the poor peasants unite in struggle, even all the might of US imperialism could not stop them. The tragedy lay in what came later. All the determination and courage of the Nicaraguan masses was not enough to overcome eleven years of internal and external sabotage, terrorist harassment and a leadership that proved incapable of breaking decisively with capitalism in order to defend the revolution from US interference.

Almost 18 years since the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas and the coming to office of the Violeta Chamorro, the candidate of the old oligarchy, Nicaragua is once again among the poorest countries in the world. Nicaraguan workers have very low wages, suffer massive unemployment, and the country has a huge external debt. Distribution of income is one of the most unequal in the world. The infant mortality rate is 29.11 deaths per 1,000 live births and illiteracy has soared to 32.5 % of the population (CIA World Fact Book). This is the price the Nicaraguan masses have had to pay for the lack of a perspective on the part of the leadership of the FSLN (the Sandinista Front) in facing US imperialism.

However, although it was a terrible defeat, things have not stood still over the past 18 years. Things have changed in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas are back in office and beyond its borders there is a general swing to the left taking place all over Latin America.

In Argentina we witnessed how the masses expelled one president after another in the period of one week at the end of 2001. In Bolivia the indigenous movements together with the powerful trade union movement challenged the privatisation of hydrocarbons and brought Morales to power. We saw how the Uruguayan masses brought the first left-wing government to power in the history of that country. In Ecuador we have also seen a massive movement that brought Rosales to power. And, of course, at the forefront of this movement are the Venezuelan masses. For practically a decade the Venezuelan workers, peasants and urban poor have been involved in a process that threatens to undermine capitalism all over the continent.

Statements by President Chavez expressing support for Socialism reflect the fact that any attempt at genuine reform under capitalism leads to a direct conflict with capitalism itself. The revolutionary movement in Venezuela started as a movement for reform and has ended as a movement against capitalism and imperialism. Capitalism does not offer a way out for the masses. Either the workers, peasants and urban poor take power and eradicate the capitalist system, or the ruling class will manoeuvre to smash the revolution and turn the clock back.

History teaches us that no ruling class has ever given up power without resistance. This was the case in Nicaragua. The leaders of the revolution carried out many reforms, but tried to keep these within the confines of capitalism. They attempted to conciliate the revolution with capitalism. This was what eventually led to the defeat of the Sandinista movement. They stopped half way and you cannot make half a revolution. Either you go all the way and break the power of the oligarchy and establish full workers' power, or you leave the initiative to the ruling class who will use it to sabotage the economy, create chaos and the conditions for counter-revolution.

There are many differences between the Sandinista revolution and the Venezuelan. In Nicaragua the old capitalist state machine collapsed and power fell into the hands of the advancing Sandinista guerrillas. In Venezuela the capitalist state is still intact. But in both cases we see an attempt to carry out reforms without doing away with private property of the means of production.

That is why a study of the lessons of the Nicaraguan Revolution will help us to understand the ongoing processes in Venezuela today.

January 2008

In July 1979 the Nicaraguan Revolution overthrew the dictatorship of Somoza after 40 years of brutal repression. For the first time in the history of the country, US imperialism was not in a position to wage a direct military intervention. After decades of US governments financing and arming of the dictatorship, the Carter and Reagan administrations were incapable of moving directly against the Nicaraguan revolution and were forced to tolerate the revolution while at the same time organising economic sabotage and support for the paramilitary "Contras". They funded reaction with 100 million dollars!

The revolution came at a difficult moment for US imperialism. It had only recently been expelled from Vietnam and had faced the opposition of millions of youth, workers and soldiers at home. They could not accept a new Cuba but they could not defeat it militarily either. The murderous dictatorships in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Argentina were on the verge of collapsing under the hammer blows of the class struggle. The pressure of the working class and the youth in Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Venezuela and above all in Colombia tied the hands of imperialism in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The bourgeois governments of Herrera Campins (President of Venezuela 1979-1984) and ex-president Carlos Andres Perez (President of Venezuela 1974-1979 and 1989-1994), Carazo (Costa Rican President), Torrijos in Panama and the Mexican PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party) were praying for Nicaragua not to follow the Cuban example. In Costa Rica, the mobilisation of the students had halted the expansion of US military bases. Further to the South, the Sao Paulo working class in Brazil were organising themselves in the CUT and the PT, a development which was to lead eventually to a crisis of the military dictatorship. In Peru there was a similar situation to that in Brazil. Meanwhile the Cuban people had managed to resist the embargo and 20 years of US pressure and had become a symbol of anti-capitalist struggle all over the world. As if this were not enough, imperialism was about to receive further tremendous blows from the unfolding Iranian Revolution, a left-wing government coming to power in Afghanistan and the first cracks in the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. Their control of Asia was at risk.

Europe had only recently witnessed the fall of Franco in Spain. Just prior to that the dictatorships in Greece and Portugal had also collapsed. Throughout the 1970s Europe had witnessed strong class polarisation. While all this was developing around the world, the situation in Nicaragua was becoming very dangerous in the eyes of imperialism. It was right in the heart of what US imperialism considered its own backyard.

The weakness of US imperialism was best summed up by US deputy Secretary of State for Central America, Viron P. Vaky: "The real problem that the US has in its foreign policy is not to try to preserve stability against the revolutions but try to build stability out of the revolutions." (Report to the US Congress, September 11, 1979). In other words, we cannot avoid revolution but we can try to avoid the same result as in Cuba.

The overthrow of Anastacio Somoza in Nicaragua announced a radical change in the life of the country's workers and peasants. Through the revolution they came very close to ending the nightmare of misery. Under Somoza's dictatorship easily curable diseases led to the death of over 30% of the children in the countryside. After the revolution infant mortality dropped to 8% and over a million people were vaccinated. Consumption of wheat rose 33%, rice 30% and beans 40%. In the last period of the dictatorship 1000 doctors visited 200,000 people every year. Under the Sandinista government 500 doctors graduated every year and the Healthcare system guaranteed doctors' visits to up to 6,000,000 people. And over 300,000 houses and building plots were handed over to the masses.

75% of the population had never opened a book before the revolution and 60% were illiterate. In 1987 the rate of illiteracy dropped to 14% thanks to 1200 new schools. On March 24, 1980 masses of young students and teachers were sent into the Nicaraguan mountains, the countryside and the urban neighbourhoods in a mass literacy campaign.

After a 150-day campaign against centuries of ignorance, 406,000 Nicaraguans had learnt to read and write. The peasants', workers' and women's mass organisations were the focal points for the success of this literacy campaign. In the mountains of the northern region, in the jungles along the Atlantic coast and on the plains near the Pacific coast, 56 teachers and students were killed and a further seven were assassinated by reactionary commandos.

The reforms carried out thanks to the revolution attracted the sympathies and the support of youth and workers all over the world. And yet, in spite of all this, Nicaragua today is once again a poor country, just like the other countries in Central America. How has it been possible for the people of Nicaragua to be thrown back into misery after they had carried out a revolution? How was it possible for a reactionary government of the oligarchy to regain control of Nicaragua?

To answer these questions one has to draw the vital lessons of history. Venezuela is in the middle of a revolution and is also facing a crucial turning point. The key to the successful carrying out of the Bolivarian and Socialist revolution in Venezuela lies in understanding the mistakes of past revolutions and not repeating those same mistakes. In this document our aim is to outline both the achievements and the mistakes of the Nicaraguan Revolution in order to draw lessons that will lead us to victory in the forthcoming revolutions in the Americas, beginning with Venezuela.

Sandino, the general of free men

Augusto Cesar Sandino
Augusto Cesar Sandino

Like the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean, Nicaragua was looted, exploited and invaded by imperialism. The US bourgeoisie in particular, needed to control the country because Nicaragua was very important from a strategic and commercial point of view, as it connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Augusto Cesar Sandino, the son of a poor peasant family, was the first to organise a struggle against imperialism in Nicaragua and he was to lead a six-year guerrilla war, between 1927 and 1932.

Sandino began the struggle with just 29 fighters recruited among the miners and eventually built this up into a fighting force of 3000 guerrillas who came from among the peasantry, the urban poor and the continent's internationalist youth. His struggle had the support of revolutionaries all over the world. According to some reports placards that read "Viva Sandino!" appeared as far away as Beijing and Shanghai in 1927.

Sandino's guerrillas faced the might of the US marines and the regular army. The regime could not smash the movement directly and responded by using terror against the peasants, carrying out mass executions and systematic torture against the civilian population organised by the National Guard that had been trained by the US. Seventy military aircraft were used, anticipating what we were to witness in Vietnam 40 years later.

Unfortunately in 1932 Sandino agreed to surrender in exchange for the withdrawal of US troops and the promise that the lives of his guerrillas would be spared. Augusto Cesar Sandino paid a heavy price for his naivety. He lost his own life and that of his whole army. On February 21, 1934 he was assassinated after a dinner with President Bautista Sacasa, the "liberal" and puppet of Washington. Anastacio Somoza Garcia was later to say: "I went to the US embassy where I had a chat with Ambassador Arthur Bliss who confirmed that the Washington government recommended the elimination of Augusto Sandino because they considered him a threat to peace in the country".

Sandino conducted a heroic struggle but it was not enough to win outright victory. In his thinking there was a fundamental flaw that was to reappear also in the thinking of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) fifty years later. Sandino's idea was that it was possible to free the country from foreign military domination with the collaboration of the "national-colonial bourgeoisie", with no need for Revolution whatsoever. In his own words: "Neither far-right nor far-left; our slogan is the united front. In this sense it is not at all illogical that our struggle accepts the collaboration of all social classes with no labels or ‘isms'."

Had the Nicaraguan Socialist Party, PSN, [the name of the Stalinists in Nicaragua at the time] adopted a correct approach to Sandino's movement, things may have turned out differently. But the sectarian policy of the Nicaraguan Stalinists helped to push Sandino into the arms of the bourgeoisie. And his assassination then prepared the way for the coup d'etat staged by the National Guard and the ensuing 42-year dictatorship of the Somoza family that lasted until 1973. All this took place with the approval of Moscow and the "communists" of the PSN. However, in spite of the repression, not all the opposition was smashed. In Managua for instance, the Managuan Workers' Confederation (CTM) continued to organise 3,000 workers in underground conditions.

The Somoza family proceeded to accumulate an enormous fortune and it was calculated that by 1979, the wealth of the Somoza family was well beyond $150 million; they directly owned 150 factories (25% of industry) and 10% of the land. They also owned the national airline, a TV channel, a newspaper and the Nicaraguan branch of Mercedes Benz. President Franklin Roosevelt once said of Somoza "Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."

The US military presence defended the economic interests of the imperialists and their investments in Central America, which were around 80% of total investments in the region. Between 1950 and 1979, 4900 soldiers and officers were sent to the US to receive military training. Nicaragua became the strategic base of the imperialists in Central America. It was from Nicaragua that in April 1961 the Bay of Pigs invasion against the Cuban revolution was launched.

Industrial development of the 1950s and 1960s

Industrialisation created a working class in the cities. In 1970 light industry represented 24% of the economy, while agriculture fell to 23%. The agrarian population went down from 60% in 1960 to 44% in 1977. In 1975 the workers represented 18% of the labour force, an average much superior to the one in Russia in 1917.

The concentration of landed property in a few hands increased. A handful of landlords owned 45% of the cultivated land, while 20% of small proprietors owned 40%. The poor peasants only had 14% of the land in spite of being 78% of the rural population altogether with 310,000 rural workers. The exploited masses suffered immensely during the 1950s and 1960s economic upswing. Between 1969 and 1974 a slump and a terrible earthquake that destroyed Managua (1972) hit the country, causing the temporary closure of 37% of industry and destroying workers' hopes for a better life.

In 1973 the working class participated in a wave of strikes that was so powerful that it forced the PSN to break with the dictator. In spite of the pressure from the workers, the PSN formed an alliance with another enemy of the working class but which had broken with Somoza - the Chamorro family. They were a family of bankers, exporters and landlords. The Chamorro family and the PSN established the Democratic Unity for Liberation (UDEL). What this reflected was the fact that a section of the colonial and exporting bourgeoisie had seen its position undermined by the economic stranglehold of the Somozas and by the reluctance of the dictator to share political power with bankers, landlords and national owners of light industries.

The Nature of the FSLN

From 1973 the wave of militant action on the part of the labour movement dramatically increased and the dictatorship was in no position to stop it. The building workers, who were the most militant sector, went on strike in 1977 at the same time as the Sandinistas were staging their guerrilla offensive in the countryside and in some smaller towns in the provinces. Yet, since its very origins, the FSLN had never established firm roots among the workers.

The FSLN came into being when some middle class students walked out of the PSN in disgust at the uncritical acceptance of the Somoza regime on the part of the party. The creation of the FSLN was a direct consequence and response to the political bankruptcy of Stalinism in Central America. A similar thing happened in Cuba when the PSP had acted as a brake on the revolutionary upheaval in the 1930s and later on supported the Batista government right up to 1943.

In the early 1960s, the young Carlos Fonseca Amador left the PSN and gathered some students around him who were to become the first nucleus of the Sandinista guerrillas. The Cuban revolution inevitably had its influence on the formation of the FSLN. But its political programme was utterly reformist and its decisive points were:

1) Relentless struggle against Somozism in order to build a capitalist and more modern democratic Nicaragua.

2) Alliance of the oppressed masses with the national bourgeoisie, before and after defeating Somozism.

3) The most leftwing layer of the FSLN believed in the Stalinist/reformist theory of the two stages: first democratic revolution to bring the country to an acceptable level of capitalist development, later on, in an uncertain future, the fight for Socialism. This theory is completely anti-Marxist and utopian because it does not flow from a scientific analysis of reality. On the one hand it reflects the desire of Stalinism to hold back revolutions in order to stabilise the position of the bureaucracy. On the other hand it also reflects how Social Democracy and the petty bourgeoisie identify with the interests of the colonial bourgeoisie, even though they are a mere appendix of imperialism.

This is the same kind of reformism that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Che Guevara fought against all their lives. The question is: why did we consider this reformist theory false in Nicaragua in the past, and why do we continue to consider it false today in Venezuela and in other countries? The answer lies in the experience of the last one hundred years of history and is expressed in the theory of the Permanent Revolution which Leon Trotsky developed on the basis of a dialectical materialist analysis of capitalist society.

In Venezuela there is a popular proverb that encapsulates very well the theory and the reality of the Permanent Revolution. This proverb reads, "The room of the rich is already full". Under capitalism today, no country in the world can develop itself in the same way that the advanced capitalist countries did in the past. This is because the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries has in its hands the multinational companies, international finance and imperialist bodies such as the IMF, the World Bank and so on. This is why they totally dominate the weak and cowardly national-colonial bourgeoisie in Latin America, Asia and Africa. The multinational companies become rich through looting the raw materials and exploiting cheap labour. For instance a pound of coffee or of any other commodity produced in the former colonial countries has the same price for the multinationals in real terms as it did 50 years ago.

The so-called "national bourgeoisie" in Nicaragua, which the FSLN leaders had so much trust in, arrived on the scene of history too late, with all the conditions imposed by the advanced capitalist countries. It was imperialism that created it to rule the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America ‑ they are there as the proxies of the imperialists.

This national-colonial bourgeoisie became rich thanks to its position as middle-men between the imperialists of the advanced capitalist countries and the poor, working and indigenous masses whom they take part in exploiting. Since the War of Independence the "national" bourgeoisie in Latin and Central America has not been able to implement Simon Bolivar's land reform, nor the abolition of the big landowners, nor full sovereignty, social and economic development independent from imperialism, and with it the end of social misery.

The extinguishing of capitalism in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949 and in Cuba in 1960 demonstrated that social and economic development in the underdeveloped countries could only be achieved on a non-capitalist economic basis, in other words, on a socialist economic basis that involved a break with private property and the taking over of the means of production and finance. There are no exceptions to this law. However, history has also shown that even collectivised and centralised planned economies can only develop in the long run if there is total control and democratic participation of the workers in the cities and the countryside and if there is the spreading of the revolution internationally.

Socialism, a most progressive system that will replace capitalism, cannot be built in one country alone or even in few isolated countries, no matter how big they are (China, Russia...). Socialism requires the solidarity, unity and complete integration of the cultural and technological resources of those countries where revolutions have taken place, with the broadest workers' democracy and a state apparatus organised by the workers themselves.

These conditions could not be achieved in Russia because of the defeat of the international revolution, of the Hungarian and German revolutions (1918-19 and 1923), Italy (1921), China (1925-27) and Spain (1931-1937). The new soviet state was thus isolated and under a military siege for 30 years - this is why it degenerated into a bureaucratic dictatorship. When the revolutions in China and Cuba eventually succeeded, the leaders of those revolutions did not find any model other than the already bureaucratised USSR which had been transformed into a police state by the Stalinist regime. All that remained of the 1917 revolution was the planned economy.

The same "soviet" bureaucracy was able to guide the Nicaraguan Communist Party because in the eyes of the masses they represented the revolutionary banner of October 1917. Although the FSLN leaders had broken with the PSN, they still brought with them the old reformist policy. During its first fifteen years, the Sandinista struggle was limited to the provinces and had no connections to the working class. Only by the mid-1970s did they manage to arouse the sympathies of the working class in their struggle against the dictatorship.

The workers reached their limit... and the revolution began

The entry of the working class onto the scene terrified the "non-Somozista" national bourgeoisie. This wing of the bourgeoisie had the support of the PSN and other Stalinists in UDEL led by Joaquin Chamorro (millionaire owner of La Prensa). They tried to broker a deal with the FSLN to offer a "bourgeois democratic" alternative to Somoza, but without losing any of the privileges that the dictatorship had ensured them.

In spite of US support, Joaquin Chamorro was assassinated by hired thugs of Somoza on January 10, 1978. The trade unions and the UDEL responded by calling a general strike on January 24. Over 120,000 workers and lower middle class people participated in the funeral of Joaquin Chamorro in Managua. This terrified the liberals who were more afraid of the workers than of the dictatorship. There was talk of civil war and armed clashes did take place in Leon, Esteli, Chirandega y Masaya between revolutionaries and the National Guard. The National Guard bombed whole cities killing up to 5,000 people in one week. It has in fact been calculated that during the two-year civil war the dictatorship killed 2% of the population ‑ 50,000.

For the first time, the workers in the cities mobilised in a massive and independent manner with their own political slogans. But because there was no revolutionary leadership of the workers' movement this meant that all the attention and expectations of the working class became focused on the FSLN, in spite of the fact that the Sandinistas only had 500 armed guerrillas.

The FSLN, led by Humberto and Daniel Ortega, Jaime Wheelock and Tomas Borge, called in the early days of June for a general mobilisation and they began the final offensive on the provinces from Costa Rica. The masses in Managua and the main cities had been mobilised since May and were about to start the final revolutionary strike. The most militant layers of the working class came out for up to 11 weeks. So militant was the movement that it forced the Stalinist leaders in the trade unions to readapt themselves to the situation.

In fact, the columns of the guerrilla army entered an already liberated Managua, because the National Guard had been smashed by the mass movement. In fact two days before the Sandinistas took the city Somoza had fled under the protection of Jimmy Carter. This marked the end of the dictatorship. The National Guard, financed until its last days by the US, fled to the provinces and they reorganised and formed the basis of the "Contras". The mobilisation of the working class, the peasants and the petty bourgeoisie was decisive in bringing about the collapse of the Somozista state.

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