Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Two Sides to a Popular Uprising


TEN years ago, Managua's streets were jammed as Nicaraguans danced joyously to celebrate the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Tomorrow, on the 10th anniversary of its rise to power, the country's ruling Sandinista Front has planned all kinds of festivities and parades. But Nicaragua will be marking this milestone in its history under a cloud of uncertainty, political discontent, and economic hardship.

The human and economic toll of war, economic mismanagement, United States-supported aggression, the country's chronic underdevelopment, and the Sandinistas' own mixed-bag approach to ideology have left many of the revolution's promises unfulfilled. By the same token, however, Sandinista critics' direst predictions of totalitarianism have also failed to come true.

About these ads

An overarching ``What if?'' hangs over any attempt to assess the decade-long performance and legacy of the Sandinista-led popular revolution: What if there had been no civil war? What if the Reagan administration had not decided in 1981 to arm and finance the remnants of Somoza's National Guard into the ``contra'' rebel force that later attracted thousands of disgruntled peasants? What if there had been no US economic embargo against Nicaragua?

Nicaragua today is neither a classless social democracy nor a communist dungeon. Opposition parties and media thrive, despite Sandinista harassment and their own incompetence. The economy, while near ruins, remains mixed between state control and private ownership. Relatively fair elections were held in 1984 and are due to be repeated next February.

However, although the Sandinistas have avoided the systematic violent excesses of their US-supported neighbors, they have justified some human-rights abuses in pursuit of the war. And a government socially committed to the needs of the poorest has seen its education and health projects plummet due to a lack of resources and the contra war.

Beginning in 1981 the government undertook what was at the time the most sweeping agrarian reform program Central American had ever known. Close to 2 million acres of land was distributed to about 68,000 families.

A literacy campaign in 1981 drew in thousands of young volunteers to pass along their knowledge of reading and writing. Nicaragua's illiteracy rate fell from over 50 percent to 13 percent, but has now risen to 25 percent. According to government figures, 411 teachers have been killed by the contras in the last seven years.

One of the other first works of the revolution was the building of health-care centers in poor urban neighborhoods and scattered mountain settlements. Itinerant healthcare workers would visit regularly, before they too became top targets for the contras.

Despite these setbacks, the Sandinistas retain firm political control. But, owing almost entirely to the economic crisis, they will have to work hard to maintain this control at next year's elections.

About these ads

Interviews across the country suggest that many people share the same criteria for judging the revolution's record:

Their experiences with the contras.

Their experience of repression by the Sandinistas.

A willingness to accept as accomplishments such intangibles of the revolution as national sovereignty and construction of a distinct national and cultural identity not dominated by the US.

Direct benefits gained from the revolution - such as land, health services, education.

El Naranjo was the first stop to gauge the opinions of the people on the performance of the Sandinistas. It is an agricultural cooperative some 175 miles northeast of Managua where 340 poor farmers live a life that seems to swing between subsistence farming and boredom, interspersed with guard duty against the contras.

The war has ebbed considerably in this area in the past 17 months. But the people of El Naranjo - and the government - know that the contras still walk in the hills. This forces villagers to divide their time between farming and defense, and plan their lives around the eventuality of attack.

Despite their obvious poverty - most people wear old military clothing donated by the Army - El Naranjo stands firmly by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and the Sandinista Front. All that they have - basically 1,785 acres of land - was given them by the revolution ``in perpetuity.''

There is also a school with two teachers but precious few resources like pencils and paper; a health clinic with no medicine; and a government representative who meets monthly with this and other cooperatives in the area to hear complaints and ideas.

``We can say anything to this guy,'' says Aristides Velasquez, of the monthly meetings. ``We are not afraid to express our opinions on anything and we don't worry about trouble if we do. Of course, nothing might get done about our complaints, but we are free to express ourselves.''

El Naranjo's people have never been mistreated by the government or Army but they have been attacked by the contras. And while poverty is widespread, the education and health systems are superior to what those old enough to remember knew before - which was nothing, they say.

``Our lives have been dominated by the war,'' says Reynaldo Velasquez, Aristides's father.

Like many people in El Naranjo, the Velasquezes had their own land in the neighboring mountains but abandoned or sold it cheap for fear of the contras.

``Our problems now are all due to the contras,'' Mr. Velasquez Sr. says. ``It has made these past 10 years a real sacrifice. But the truth is we never lived well [before]. Campesinos rarely do.''

There are glimmers of progress. That the villagers are consulted at all on their lives by local officials is a vast change from the past, older residents say.

``The campesino never used to speak at all. We didn't even really think much,'' says Virginia Umazor. ``Now we all come together and give our opinions.''

``Before the revolution we all lived in the mountains and knew of no government. Now I feel like I am part of a nation,'' says Ms. Umazor, the local representative of the Sandinista Agricultural Workers' Association.

Indeed, such notions as ``being part of a nation'' are most often mentioned by supporters of the revolution who are hard pressed to find much else to praise given their economic woes.

One of the achievements of the revolution has been to expand the social base of those involved in running the country, says one European ambassador. ``During Somoza there was a very small social base of those involved in running the country,'' said one European ambassador. But, he indicates, the Sandinista base could be expanded further, given that there is ``much political indifference and opposition here.''

And for those who do not see themselves as Sandinistas, the failings and excesses of the revolution are inexcusable. In a country where getting by on a day-to-day basis is a challenge, issues of media laws and electoral reform are of little immediate concern.

Pantasma, a town of a few thousand people north of Managua, exemplifies Nicaraguan disenchantment with the Sandinistas. Pantasma was the site of a harsh repression by the Army in the mid-1980s following a contra attack which was clearly supported by some of the townspeople. Several top Sandinistas were sentenced to prison terms for a series of killings and other abuses.

A conversation with three locals - a store owner, a traveling saleswoman, and a campesino - made it clear that sentiment still runs strongly against the Sandinistas.

``There is no freedom of expression here,'' said the store owner who, like the others, asked that his name not be used. ``They can kill you for speaking your mind here.''

The Sandinistas seem to be isolated from the larger community here. The three openly denounced the revolution within earshot of other townsfolk, but fell silent when a uniformed official walked in to buy a Pepsi.

``Sure the contra war is to blame,'' says the saleswoman. ``But what the Sandinistas have done to people during the war - that is not the contras' fault. They don't make [the Sandinistas] abuse people.''

All three of them complained bitterly about the economy and found precious little to praise to offset their deep disappointment.

``Daniel [President Ortega] tricked us,'' said the campesino. ``They promised us the stars and all they gave us was ruin.''

Yet in ticking off the various public works of the revolution - health, education, literacy, lights and water in towns which never knew them - all three agreed things were better than the general neglect of the Somoza years.

But with the economy mid-way through its fifth year of decline, many Nicaraguans are questioning whether enduring seven years of war has been worth the price.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.