BY LAZARO MONTEVERDE
A review of “What went wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis,” by Dan La Botz. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018.)
When I visited Nicaragua in 1983 as part of a delegation of religious activists from the Central America Movement, I thought I was witnessing a miracle. The country was radically transformed both economically and culturally. So different was it from my previous visit in 1978, when the country was ruled by the brutal caudillo Anastasio Somoza Debayle and his family, that I did not believe my eyes.
So different too was it from my beloved Honduras, which had been ruled by General Melgar Castro in the 1970s, another caudillo, and which was now in the 1980s ruled almost directly from the U.S. Embassy. Our delegation had first visited Honduras. The difference between the two countries, and the differences in Nicaragua before and after the 1979 revolution struck all of us.
The political history of Latin America is the repetitive story of the caudillo. A caudillo is a strong man or woman who exercises authoritarian rule, using the military and a political party. Caudillos can be of the right or left, or in some cases both, as with Peron in Argentina, who moved from left to right. Caudillos dominate the history of Latin America because of the institutional weakness of the Latin American ruling classes and because of the comprador nature of the elites, serving not just their own interests but the interests of the imperialist powers.
Latin America has witnessed at least six significant revolutions (and many more pre-revolutionary situations) since independence from Spain in the early 1800s. The first was the historic Haitian revolution of 1791 to 1804 (1). The second was the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1920. The Mexican Revolution was ultimately “interrupted,” and a one-party nominally democratic state serving Mexican capital arose led by the PRI, the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (2).
The third revolution was the Cuban Revolution of 1958-59, which resulted in a revolutionary socialist government on the island (3). The fourth revolution was the Chilean Revolution, from 1970 to 1973, under the leadership of Salvador Allende. This “third way” revolution, a revolution based on winning elections, was destroyed in the U.S.-backed military coup on Sept. 11, 1973 (4). The fifth revolution was the Grenadan Revolution of 1979 to 1983, which ended after the U.S. invasion of 1983 (5). And the sixth Latin American revolution was the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 to 1990, analyzed in “What went wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis,” by Dan La Botz.
La Botz’s new book is the single best history of the Nicaraguan Revolution to appear. It is a must read for serious revolutionaries and antiwar, anti-imperialist activists. He has synthesized a great deal of the history of the revolution from both Spanish and English sources. His book will also be essential reading for years to come for all who wish to understand the dynamics of change in Latin America and who seek to build a world socialist revolution.
The Nicaraguan Revolution
La Botz presents a Marxist analysis of the Nicaraguan revolution, that is to say, an analysis grounded in the political and cultural history of Nicaragua that focuses on questions of social class and class power. The book is dense with historical facts and analysis at the same time that it is highly readable and engaging. I wish to summarize a small portion of the text so that the reader of this review will have an idea of his achievement.
La Botz begins in Chapter 1 with the pre-colonization history of the indigenous peoples, traces the conquest of the region by the Spanish, and the independence of Central America from Spain in the early 19th century. Much of Chapter 1 details the post-independence period of Nicaragua from 1821 to 1893, an especially important time. It was during this time that conservative and liberal wings of the ruling elite fought each other for control of the government, with neither faction of the ruling class gaining control.
It was also during this period that Great Britain and the U.S. competed for imperial dominance of Nicaragua and all of Latin America. The famous, in Latin America we would say infamous, Monroe doctrine, articulated by President James Monroe in 1823, declared all of Latin America to be in the U.S. sphere of influence, to be essentially “our backyard.” Saying it does not make it so, however, and the U.S. had to struggle against Great Britain, and to a lesser extent the vestiges of Spanish power in Cuba and Puerto Rico, for almost 100 years before the U.S. empire totally dominated Latin America in the early 1920s.
This period includes the efforts of Cornelius Vanderbilt to construct a transoceanic canal through Nicaragua, starting in 1849, and the invasion and occupation of Nicaragua by William Walker in 1855-1857. Walker and his backers in the U.S. hoped to expand slavery into Latin America (Nicaragua had abolished slavery in 1838), made English the official language, and awarded vast tracts of land to Walker’s U.S. soldiers. When Walker returned to the U.S. he was treated as a hero. He spoke at a mass meeting of 20,000 whites in New Orleans in 1860, on the eve of the U.S. Civil War.
Chapter 2 examines the period of 1893 to 1935, when the Nicaraguan ruling class and the U.S. imperialists built the modern Nicaraguan state and capitalist economy. During this period the U.S. directly occupied Nicaragua from 1909 to 1927. After withdrawing U.S. troops in 1927, the U.S. re-occupied Nicaragua from 1927 to 1933 to fight against the troops of Augusto Sandino in an extraordinarily violent civil war. Sandino had a nationalist and anti-imperialist political program but he was not a socialist.
In the mid-1920s, the U.S. pressured a number of Latin American countries through treaties with the U.S. to form their own national guards or armies. These national guards were trained and shaped by the U.S. as instruments of local political and military control. Sandino, with approximately 2000 troops, fought against 5000 U.S. Marines and 2000 Nicaraguan National Guard troops. The Great Depression in the U.S. and the resistance of Sandino and his troops led to new elections in Nicaragua in 1932 and the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1933.
A truce and peace conference was soon announced, and soon afterward Sandino laid down his arms. A year later, after dining with the president, Sandino and his top advisors were ambushed and executed by the Nicaraguan National Guard.
Chapter 3 outlines the rise and dominance of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua from 1936 to 1975. During this period the Somoza family ruled Nicaragua as loyal servants of U.S. and Nicaraguan capital. They tried to modernize the Nicaraguan state and economy in the service of themselves, their cronies, and their U.S. masters. In this, the Somoza family formed alliances or pacts with various local capitalists, the labor movement, and political parties. The Somoza family itself dominated the Liberal Party, one of the two traditional political parties in Nicaragua, as well as controlling the National Guard. They became a classic Latin American caudillo dynasty.
Cuban revolution inspired Nicaraguan youth
Chapters 4 and 5 shift the narrative focus away from the development of the Nicaraguan state and economy to the emergence and triumph of the FSLN. La Botz traces the history of the FSLN and its key figures to the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN-Partido Socialista Nicaraguense), the Stalinist Communist Party of Nicaragua. All the founding members of the FSLN were young militants in the Nicaraguan Socialist Party, a party that backed the Somoza dynasty at various times.
These young militants were deeply influenced by the Cuban revolution, which triumphed in January 1959. They broke with the PSN around two issues. The first was the subordination of the struggles in Nicaragua to the needs of the USSR. The second was the use of armed guerrilla struggle based on the Cuban model of “focos” nuclei of militants fighting in the jungle or mountains with connections to peasants and workers.
This break with the PSN and an embrace of armed struggle led to the formation of two guerrilla groups—the New Nicaragua Movement, formed in 1961 by Carlos Fonseca, and the Sandinista Revolutionary Front by Eden Pastora. Under pressure from Cuba, their main sponsor, both groups merged in 1961-62 under the name the National Liberation Front (FLN), a tribute to the Algerian revolutionary organization. The group soon added Sandinista to its name to become the FSLN.
For most of its 18-year struggle, the FSLN remained a marginal and ineffective force. They sent their best militants into the jungle to take up armed struggle and never succeeded in forming close connections with peasants and workers. Nor did they succeed in growing the organization and threatening the Somoza dynasty.
They did emerge as the only steadfast and uncompromising political force against the dynasty. In the mid-1970s they carried out some spectacular actions, including assassinations and kidnappings. Also in the 1970s, two important developments occurred. First, radical Christians influenced by Vatican II adopted a theology of liberation that was highly critical of capitalism and imperialism. A number of priests and nuns began working closely with the FSLN to form a socialist revolution. Second, the PSN and the FSLN began working together closely in 1976 and formally merged in 1978.
Alongside these advances, the FSLN suffered substantial losses due to military attacks, including the death of Carlos Fonseca in 1976 and the near total destruction of all the focos. With the death of Fonseca, the primary leader of the organization, a split occurred within the group. Two currents emerged, the Prolonged People’s War current, led by Tomás Borge, and representing the historic orientation of Fonseca, and the Proletarian Tendency, which sought to develop organizations among urban and especially rural workers.
The Prolonged People’s War current expelled the Proletarian Tendency and threatened to kill them. At the same time, a third current emerged, led by Daniel Ortega and his brother Humberto, that favored a mass insurrection and alliances with capitalists and capitalist political parties. This current became known as the Third Tendency, or Terceristas in Spanish.
As popular discontent with the Somoza dynasty was on the rise, including a spontaneous and brutally repressed mass insurrection in 1978, Fidel Castro sought to re-unify the FSLN. Given the defeat of virtually all the guerrilla focos in 1976, the Prolonged People’s War group was not the dominant faction in the reunified organization. The Terceristas allied with the weaker Proletarian Tendency to gain effective control. The reunification was announced in March of 1979 with a directory of nine commanders (comandantes), three from each tendency. The Terceristas under Ortega’s leadership was in effective political control. Using cross-class political alliances and with Sandinista leadership of a mass urban and rural insurrection, the Somoza dynasty ended on July 19, 1979.
Chapters 6 and 7 detail the FSLN in power immediately after the overthrow of the Somoza dynasty, through the Contra War of the 1980s, to their electoral defeat in 1990. Originally working in coalition, the FSLN was able to consolidate its power over the state by smashing the existing state apparatus and rebuilding it along Sandinista lines. Chapter 6 and 7 discuss the successes of the revolution, including the literacy campaign and the health campaigns, and the revolution’s initial failures, such as the relations with the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean coast.
La Botz does not discuss the incredible success of the revolution in feeding the Nicaraguan people and eliminating malnutrition, one of the main achievements. In these chapters La Botz also highlights the lack of democracy within the FSLN and within the top-down mass organizations they created. Chapter 7 details the Contra War and the U.S. efforts to destroy the revolution. Given the massive literature on this subject, La Botz’s chapter is necessarily brief but to the point.
Chapters 8 and 9 trace the restoration of the neoliberal capitalist regime in Nicaragua from 1990, when the Sandinistas lost a crucial election, to Ortega’s return to power in 2006. This period marked two important developments. First, the restoration of a neoliberal capitalist government and economic model in Nicaragua, beginning with the government of Violeta Chamorro (1990-96) and then under the governments of Alemán (1996-2001) and Bolaños (2001-2006). These regimes were also corrupt.
Second, maintaining the capitalist nature of the state and economy was carried out with the collaboration of the FSLN, especially the Ortega brothers. This restoration included a number of political pacts and agreements and two massive give-aways of state assets to the leaders of the FSLN. The Ortega brothers, Borge, and others became multimillionaires overnight, and they converted the FSLN and its unions into giant patronage machines. The capitalist restoration could not have taken place without the active participation of the FSLN leadership, who prevented any democratic decision-making in the party and drove out many of the original cadre who did not accept the betrayal of the revolution.
In Chapter 10, La Botz traces the period from 2006 to the present, when Ortega won election to the presidency and became a new caudillo. He immediately set about consolidating his hold over society, changing the constitution to permit his re-election and the election of his wife as his vice-president. He also installed his children as the heads of key media corporations or government agencies. Ortega and his family are creating a new caudillo dynasty to rule over Nicaragua in the interests of capital (although not necessarily U.S. capital).
Chapter 10 also highlights some of Ortega’s reactionary policies, especially against women, Indigenous peoples, independent unions, and the environment. Ultimately, as La Botz shows, the Nicaraguan revolution has degenerated into a tragedy.
While “What went wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution” is a germinal work, it is not without its political weaknesses. La Botz rightly emphasizes a major failing: the lack of democracy within the FSLN and within the Sandinista government. This is an important criticism.
He also notes the failure of the FSLN to carry out a revolutionary program, especially to give land to the peasants. This criticism, also important, has been made by Socialist Action from the early 1980s onward and was communicated by SA directly to the Sandinistas.
But La Botz does not spend enough time examining the imperialist intervention beginning immediately after the overthrow of the Somoza dynasty and continuing through 1990. No isolated revolution can survive for long without support. Socialism in one country is a Stalinist myth and cannot exist in the real world.
Lessons for Today
“The lessons of the Nicaraguan Revolution,” La Botz writes, “that is, the answers to the question ‘What went wrong?’ therefore have valuable broader implications, not only for understanding the past, but also for contemporary politics and the struggle for socialism in the future” (p. 1). In my opinion, La Botz highlights some of these lessons but not all. What then are the lessons for today?
First, the current Ortega government is not a revolutionary government. Ortega has become a caudillo, basing his power in the army and the FSLN, which now operates as a patronage machine. Ortega is now a wealthy capitalist himself, as are other top Sandinistas, and he is building a family dynasty.
The U.S. does not forget or forgive easily, and while Ortega is a capitalist and a pro-capitalist politician, he is also pursuing an independent foreign policy that is critical of the U.S. This by itself would place him on the U.S. imperialists’ “enemies list.” But it gets worse since Ortega and the Sandinistas are close allies of China, and especially seek Chinese investment, such as for the proposed transoceanic canal in Nicaragua.
The correct position for U.S. anti-imperialist and antiwar activists to take is the one adopted by the Executive Bureau of the Fourth International on Oct. 28, 2018: Solidarity with popular demands and against Ortega’s repression and U.S. intervention (6). In short, Ortega and his wing of the FSLN betrayed the revolution.
Second, the foco strategy, and more broadly guerrilla warfare, is a political dead end. Following the Cuban revolution, and also under the influence of the Vietnamese revolution, many revolutionaries around the world turned toward a foquista strategy, believing that revolution is best brought about by small groups of revolutionaries (focos) fighting in the mountains or jungles to build a base of resistance to the regime.
This strategy failed in Nicaragua, and elsewhere, starting with Che’s tragically doomed efforts in Bolivia. As La Botz shows, when the FSLN modified their focquista strategy to include organizing among the working class and mass urban insurrections, they were able to achieve success—although, unfortunately, only in coalition with capitalist elites.
The Fourth International was not isolated from these debates and at the 1969 World Congress adopted a political resolution that supported guerrilla struggle in Latin America. This resolution and general political approach was criticized by Joseph Hansen, one of the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party, the U.S. section of the Fourth International. In contrast to the guerrilla strategies, Hansen championed the Leninist strategy followed by the Bolsheviks in 1917. This strategy includes building a vanguard party based on a revolutionary program, democracy in the party along with unity of action, democracy in the mass movements, the organization of the working class as the engine of the revolution, and the use of various tactics such as strikes, marches, newspapers, and elections to build the revolution, which ultimately results in an insurrection. Hansen’s writings on this topic are no longer in print but should be required reading by all revolutionaries (7).
A guerrilla strategy excludes the masses and makes socialist revolution unlikely. But what about Cuba, you may ask? The history of the Cuban revolution is more complicated than the official story. It followed a pattern similar in many ways to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the July 26 movement used many of the elements of the Leninist strategy (8). The Cuban revolution was a mass revolution carried out by the urban and rural working class, led by a vanguard organization, the July 26 movement. The real path forward is by adopting a Leninist strategy.
Socialist revolutions can only be made by the masses, with the leadership of a vanguard party. The FSLN took the role of the vanguard in Nicaragua, but as long as it sought to substitute itself for the masses it failed.
Making a revolution is not the same as making a successful revolution. To be successful, the vanguard must have a revolutionary program. There must be democracy in the vanguard and in the mass organizations. And ultimately, there must be world revolution, for socialism cannot be built or survive in one country. This is the essence of the lessons of all the revolutions in the 20th century.
Nicaragua is again in the news. In April 2018 mass opposition to the Ortega government erupted after Ortega cut social security benefits. Students soon joined their parents and grandparents in protesting the cuts and demanding that Ortega resign and new elections be held. These protests spread and were violently repressed by Ortega and his security forces. (9) At present, many from the political opposition are in hiding or exile.
Many on the left treat the Ortega dictatorship as a progressive and revolutionary force, seemingly following the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Nothing could be further from the truth, as La Botz’s evidence proves time and again.
This is not to say, however, that the U.S. is not conspiring to overthrow Ortega and replace him with a loyal servant to U.S. imperial interests. This is exactly what happened in neighboring Honduras in 2009 when the U.S. backed a coup that overthrew the democratically elected president who dared propose minor reforms that would hurt corporate profits and improve the lot of the Honduran people.
The subsequent U.S. puppet regimes, backed strongly by the U.S., have undermined the rule of law in Honduras and produced the wave of violence that now forces thousands of Hondurans to flee their homes for the U.S. and Mexico. (10)
While U.S. covert operations in Nicaragua are difficult to pinpoint, it is clear that the U.S. government has made an effort to strangle the Nicaraguan economy (yet again) with the NICA Act of December 2018, signed into law by Trump. The act seeks to cut off international aid and loans to Nicaragua, a classic imperialist tactic of economic warfare.
I saw with my own eyes what difference a revolution could make, and my heart is shattered by the betrayal of that revolution by the FSLN and the defeat of that revolution by U.S. imperialism. But having seen revolution, I have hope. I know that revolution is complex, difficult, hard; but revolution is also possible and necessary. If you wish to make a revolution, you need to learn from past revolutions. Dan La Botz’s book is essential for that purpose.
- On Haiti see The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, by C.L.R. James. New York: Vintage Press, 1989 (2nd)
- On Mexico see The Mexican Revolution, by Adolfo Gilly. The New Press, 2006. Originally published in 1971 as La revolucion interrumpida. Also see Mexico’s Revolution—Then and Now, by James D. Cockcroft. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.
- On Cuba See The Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution by Joseph Hanson. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978; The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered, by Samuel Farber. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007; The Cuban Revolution, by Marifeli Perez-Stable; Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011 (3rd)
- On the Chilean Revolution see “Salvador Allende’s Chile” and “Coup in Chile: The first 9/11” both available at socialistaction.org
- On the Grenadan Revolution see The Grenada Revolution: Reflections and Lessons, by Wendy C. Grenade. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
- See “Faced with Nicaragua’s social and political crisis: Solidarity with popular struggles and against Ortegista repression”, available at socialistaction.org
- See The Leninist Strategy of Party Building: The Debate on Guerrilla Warfare in Latin America, by Joseph Hansen, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1979.
- See The Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory, by Steve Cushion, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016.
- See Francis Robles, “In Nicaragua, Ortega was on the ropes. Now, he has protestors on the run.” New York Times, December 24, 2018. Available at nytimes.com.
- See The Long Honduran Night, by Dana Frank. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018.