MANAGUA – Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution, a movement that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in July 1979, marks its 40-year anniversary with one of its rebel commanders, Daniel Ortega, still at the helm.
Ortega, who initially headed the Junta of National Reconstruction from 1979 to 1985 and then served as the Central American nation’s president from 1985 to 1990, has been entrenched in power since January 2007 in his second stint as head of state.
What remains of that movement that toppled Anastasio Somoza DeBayle, the last strongman in a dynasty that ruled Nicaragua from 1937 to 1979, is now led by Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, after the main rebel leaders distanced themselves from the socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party over disagreements with its vertical and authoritarian leadership style.
Below are several keys – according to leading figures in the anti-Somoza struggle who are now in opposing camps – to understanding what brought about the revolution and how it has evolved to the present day.
Primary Objective: Overthrowing the Somoza Dictatorship
“The main motivation was to overthrow a dictatorship, a dynasty of dictators that had dominated Nicaragua since 1936 and was being passed down from fathers to sons, which for the Nicaraguan people meant great economic hardship and repression,” poet and writer Gioconda Belli told EFE.
Belli was a member of the FSLN during the Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s and later during the first Sandinista government in the 1980s.
According to Eden Pastora, the mythical “Comandante Cero” (Commander Zero) who is an ally of Ortega’s, the main factor that triggered the revolution was the desire to put an end to the United States’ “meddling” in Nicaragua.
That interference included “three invasions,” the granting of sovereignty over the archipelago of San Andres to Colombia and US support for the patriarch of the Somoza dynasty after the assassination of Nicaraguan revolutionary Gen. Augusto C. Sandino (1895-1934).
Key Moments of the Revolutionary Triumph
On Aug. 22, 1978, nearly a year before Somoza Debayle’s definitive defeat on July 19, 1979, a Sandinista unit seized the National Palace and held hostage lawmakers allied with the then-dictator.
The 25 hooded Sandinista guerrillas, led by “Commander Zero,” occupied the building that housed the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, an action that lasted three days and ended with the release of dozens of political prisoners.
Another final straw for Nicaragua’s strongman was the Jan. 10, 1978, shooting death of anti-Somoza journalist Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Cardenal, a killing that occurred at a time when the Sandinista rebels were battling government forces in the mountains and urban areas.
The murder of American television journalist Bill Stewart by Somoza’s National Guard forces on June 20, 1979, in Managua also marked a turning point.
Then-US President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat in office from 1977 to 1981, responded to that killing by withdrawing his administration’s support for Somoza, a further blow for a strongman who Pastora says “was already defeated.”
The Revolution’s Sins
Nicaragua’s revolutionary leaders committed the cardinal sin of putting ideology above reality with their intention of creating a socialist state ruled by a single – or at least hegemonic – party, writer and intellectual Sergio Ramirez, Nicaragua’s vice president during Ortega’s first tenure as head of state, said in a recent editorial.
After the revolution’s triumph, cracks started to appear in the unified front of diverse political forces that had made Somoza’s downfall possible, Ramirez, who has broken with Ortega, recalled.
That breakdown occurred because “the FSLN, very early on, decided that the responsibility for governing was exclusively theirs, and this was another cardinal sin,” Ramirez wrote.
He noted that in strategic terms the revolution allied itself with the Soviet camp and Cuba to secure military support and basic supplies such as oil, while the US imposed a trade embargo and sought to isolate Nicaragua, part of a policy that, in the world’s eyes, amounted to a David-versus-Goliath situation.
The revolution also erred, according to the writer, with its decision to put key sectors of the economy, starting with agriculture, under state control and with its failed move to impose foreign and domestic trade controls.
In addition, a civil war pitting US-backed, right wing rebels known as Contras against the Sandinista forces “came to disrupt the social transformation initiatives that were the revolution’s reason for being,” Ramirez said.
But according to Pastora, “the most beautiful of all revolutions, the Sandinista struggle, was thwarted from within by its dissidents; he pointed the finger at former “commanders” Henry Ruiz, Luis Carrion and Jaime Wheelock, as well as Ramirez.
The 1990 Elections
In 1990, the Sandinistas were defeated at the ballot box by the National Opposition Union’s Violeta Chamorro, a loss that caused the FSLN to split into factions.
The revolution “took the wrong path starting in 1990 with the FSLN’s electoral defeat” and “now we’re experiencing a situation that’s totally contrary to what we wanted to achieve,” Belli said, adding that the revolution has not evolved over these 40 years but instead “has regressed.”
According to Ramirez, with its electoral defeat in 1990, the FSLN’s “hegemonic project collapsed and the ideological conceptions rapidly grew stale.”
“Perhaps the most instructive of all the cardinal sins of the revolution, viewed now as a distant phenomenon, is the conception of public power resting forever in the hands of one party, which inevitably leads to power resting in one person or one family,” he said.
For “Commander Zero,” however, the exodus of the revolution’s senior leaders occurred after the 1990 elections because former key members-turned-dissidents believed the FSLN would never regain power.
Since winning back the presidency in the November 2006 elections, Ortega has relied on aid from oil-rich Venezuela – which totals at least $4.95 billion over the past 11 years, according to official figures, and is managed outside the country’s budget – to promote social projects and maintain his political clientele.
But those aid flows have dried up drastically over the past two years amid the worsening economic and political crisis in Venezuela.
What Remains of the Revolution?
Belli says, “Nicaragua has returned to its, let’s call it, circle of dictators, and we’ve become a dictatorship once again” with Ortega.
“It’s a dictatorship that this time around was created and is maintained by people who’d been involved in the struggle against Somoza. It seems unreal that people who fought against a dictatorship would end up forming a dictatorship, and since last year we’ve had terrible repression: 325 people have been killed and more than 70,000 people have left the country. We’re sad. This is a sad anniversary,” she added.
But in Pastora’s view, the revolution’s survival now depends on the 73-year-old Ortega’s leadership and continuance in power.