The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Nicaragua:
5 Years of Sandinista Power

Nov 30, 1984

The Nicaraguan revolution, which put the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) in power, celebrated its fifth anniversary in July of this year. During the past 5 years, the FSLN regime has taken a number of radical measures and instituted social reforms ordinarily not seen in a country as poor as Nicaragua. It has come under imperialism’s attack. And it puts itself forward as the representative of the laboring masses of Nicaragua, mobilizing them in mass organizations.

This all has led a number of leftists to view the FSLN regime as one which has entered onto the road leading to socialism. Whether the regime is characterized as being the expression of a workers’ state already existing in Nicaragua; whether it is seen as being a workers and farmers government which could preside over the transformation of a bourgeois state into a workers’ state; or whether, even while the current class nature of the state in Nicaragua is left vague – the radical measures taken by the FSLN are accepted as proof of the FSLN’s socialist direction by many in the left.

Somoza Dictatorship – a Weight on All the Classes

The FSLN came to power in 1979 at the head of a movement which had grown up in opposition to Anastasio Somoza. This movement, by the time Somoza was finally overthrown, had engaged all the social classes. The total dominance which the Somoza family had exerted over Nicaragua in a 43-year long dictatorship helped to explain the fact that by the end, almost all the traditional bourgeois parties, including the most right wing; the Catholic church; the main businessmen’s association; the bourgeois papers; even many of Somoza’s own political allies had become the allies of the FSLN in the movement against Somoza.

The Somozas were fastened on the Nicaraguan people by the second of two U.S. military occupations, which ran from 1926 to 1933 (the first had run from 1912 to 1925). The Nicaraguan National Guard, which gave Somoza his hold on power, was fashioned during those years. This National Guard, armed and trained by the U.S. over the years, served to impose the dictatorship of Somoza while it defended U.S. interests in the area. And it was directed not only against the Nicaraguan people, but also against the peoples of the whole region. Nicaragua was maintained as the stronghold of imperialism; it was even used as a base for the U.S. invasions of Guatemala in 1954 and of Cuba in 1961.

The dominance of U.S. imperialism meant for Nicaragua what it has meant to greater or lesser degree for all those countries of Central America which constitute the “backyard of American imperialism.” The economy of Nicaragua was severely underdeveloped: its main products – coffee, cotton and sugar cane – were agricultural and designed for export. Its economy was tied so closely into that of the U.S., that by 1979, 90 per cent of all its exports went to the U.S., while it got 75 per cent of all its imports from the same place. The Nicaraguan economy was constituted simply as a function of the interests of U.S. imperialism.

Those interests were upheld by a regime famous for its ferocious repressiveness, as well as for its corruption and its voracity for the wealth of the country.

The Somozas were estimated to have 150 million dollars worth of holdings in Nicaragua by 1979, as well as between 250 and 350 million dollars taken out of the country. In addition to their holdings in land, the Somozas owned the national airline and steamship companies, the main railroad, supermarket chains, banks, and a significant part of the factories: the only two meatpacking plants that had export licenses, half of the sugar mills, the largest milk processing plant, other food processing plants, most of cement production, all of the production of paving stones, textile factories – as well as most coffee and tobacco production, two thirds of commercial fishing and 40 per cent of all rice production. They also held a newspaper, two tv stations and a radio station.

All layers of the population suffered as the result. The poor first and above all. It is estimated that 60 per cent of the population was illiterate; that only 5 per cent of the population had completed elementary school; that the poorest 50 per cent of the peasants, holding less than 4 per cent of the land, had an average yearly income running between 35 and 50 dollars in the 1970s; that 80 per cent of the population of Managua, the capital, lacked running water; that unemployment ran between 30 and 50 per cent for the working class; that infant mortality in the poor neighborhoods ran so high that one in three infants born to poor Nicaraguans died within the first year of life; that almost 60 per cent of the children under five were malnourished; that over half of the Nicaraguan population had never seen a doctor, or even a nurse.

But it was not just the poor layers of the population who were crushed by the Somoza regime. The corruption of that regime, the entourage it had built up around itself based on that corruption, meant that it was difficult for the rest of the urban petty bourgeoisie, for the shopkeepers, the small businessmen, the professionals, even to survive.

Even broad layers of the bourgeoisie, even of the oldest families of the old oligarchy, came to find the development of their own holdings blocked by Somoza. Starting as the military defenders of the old oligarchy, in so far as its interests coincided with those of U.S. imperialism, the Somozas came to use their military control to put themselves more and more in competition with the oligarchy. The state treasury existed for no other reason, apparently, than to underwrite the expenses of Somoza; when Somoza quit the country in July of 1979, he left behind only 3.5 million dollars in state funds – a small amount in comparison to the hundreds of millions he had pillaged. On the basis of international funds sent to aid the victims of the terrible 1972 earthquake, Somoza moved into banking. The Somozas, who owned nothing when the first Somoza took power, had become the fourth wealthiest financial grouping in Nicaragua. The Somozas seemed to be trying to turn all of Nicaragua into their own military fiefdom. And the U.S. obviously could care less, so long as its own interests were served. There is a famous admission of Franklin D. Roosevelt apropos of this: “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

The FSLN Takes Power at the Head of a Bourgeois Nationalist Movement

The fact that the Somoza regime weighed so heavily on all layers of the society; the fact that isolated as it was, it was forced to rely on such a degree of military repression, helps to explain that the oppositional movement which built up against the regime engaged all the social layers of Nicaragua. Any opposition whatsoever to the regime or its policies became suspect. Even if the bourgeois opposition was at first very moderate, even timid, the regime turned to the use of violence against spokesmen for the bourgeoisie itself. Thus, even the more privileged layers of society were brought into more radical opposition to Somoza. This was especially true after the assassination in January 1978 of Pedro Chamorro, the editor of La Prensa, the main bourgeois newspaper, the voice of the Conservative Party which was part of Somoza’s own government. But even before this, the Catholic church and the main business leaders’ association, COSEP (Higher Council of Private Enterprise) had entered into opposition to Somoza.

In the meantime, the FSLN, which had come into existence years before, in 1961, under the impetus of a student movement in Nicaragua and the Cuban revolution, more and more began to serve as a pole of attraction for the growing movement. The FSLN had put in a number of years in the countryside, engaging the National Guard in a guerilla struggle. The different parts of it existed in isolation, during the long years when it was not able to find a response in the population. In fact, it had even split into 3 competing factions for a time, as late as 1976, coinciding with the death of its main leader at the time, Carlos Fonseca Amador. But as the population began to oppose the regime, the militancy and daring of the Sandinistas drew attention to the FSLN. Its raid, in August 1978, taking the Chamber of Deputies hostage in the National Palace itself and forcing Somoza to release 83 political prisoners, gave the FSLN an aura of invincibility.

During 1978, the businessmen, both big and small, organized 3 separate general strikes, shutting down their own businesses and calling on the whole population to join the strike. The FSLN, in the course of one of these, began its own military offensive against the regime, hoping through direct military confrontation to topple the regime. This first attempt in August and September of 1978 was put down, and there was a terrible repression waged against those areas of the country which had joined the insurrectional movement. The poor neighborhoods, the factories and the schools (which had been the center of that movement which had joined the Sandinista offensive) were bombed.

Beaten back for the moment, the FSLN retired, only to resume the fight several months later. By May of 1979, the bourgeoisie had almost in its entirety left the side of Somoza and was trying to convince the U.S. to replace Somoza with someone more amenable to the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie – or, at any rate, to force him to accept other bourgeois forces on an equal footing. In May, the U.S. suspended aid to the regime, but did not break with it. This drove more of the bourgeoisie to the side of the FSLN. At the same time, the popular barrios had become real centers of resistance to Somoza. When the FSLN launched a new offensive in June of 1979, this one sparked a popular insurrection which quickly spread throughout the country. Almost the whole of the opposition rallied to the side of the FSLN. The Army began to crumble, as it was hit by massive desertions. On the 16th of June, a government of national unity, comprised of the representatives of conservative bourgeois parties and the businessmen’s association, as well as the FSLN, was set up. One the 17th of July, Somoza fled the country, having drained it of as much wealth as he was able.

A Government of Businessmen, Bankers, Priests – and the FSLN

The FSLN, while it was the most determined force in the fight to remove Somoza, stayed on the bourgeois terrain in its program and in the policy it subsequently carried out when it took the power. We can see this reflected in the regime which issued out of the 1979 revolution. The new government was clearly a bourgeois government. In the first Governmental Junta of National Reconstruction, the 5 members included Alfonso Robelo, one of the wealthiest businessmen of the country and a leader of the big landed proprietors; Violetta Chamorro, widow of the murdered Conservative Party leader; as well as Moisés Hassan, a university professor, and Sergio Ramirez, a lawyer, both of whom were friendly to the FSLN; and Daniel Ortega, representing the FSLN. The 18-member Cabinet included three FSLN members, as well as a number of openly reactionary people: Roberto Mayorga Cortes, former general secretary of the Central America Common Market, appropriately enough, the new minister of planning; Noël Rivas Casteasoro, president of the Chamber of Commerce, the new minister of industry; Manuel José Torres, a big Christian Democratic landowner, the new minister of agriculture; and Bernadino Larios, a former officer in the Somoza National Guard, the new minister of defense.

Of course, what is important from the standpoint of the bourgeois character of the regime is not simply the fact of the four non-FSLN members in the junta, nor the 15 in the cabinet. It is that the FSLN wanted to include such reactionary bourgeois people into the first government, just as today, they want the 3 Catholic priests who sit in their cabinet, as well as those members of the other bourgeois parties who remained up until the recent beginning of the official election campaign for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.

Even if all the non-FSLN members eventually leave the government, or even are driven out – as well they could be – this will not change its character, any more than did the eventual departure of the more reactionary members of the first governments. Whether the power continues to be exercised in the form it has been up until now, with a junta directing it, whether the forms of bourgeois democracy – that is, a real representative parliament and a presidency – actually come out of the upcoming elections, the regime will remain a bourgeois regime. For what makes the FSLN regime a bourgeois one is the fact that while the personal dictatorship of Somoza was overthrown in a revolutionary fashion, there was no proletarian power created by the working class. There were no organs of power set up by the oppressed masses, organs in which the working class and the peasantry could be represented directly; no place where the working class and the peasantry could participate directly in the decision. And in the absence of a workers power, the power could only remain what it had been – that of the bourgeoisie, exercised not directly, it is true, but through petty bourgeois radicals of the FSLN who defend the long-term historic interests of the bourgeoisie in creating their own independent nation. During the long 43-year reign of Somoza, the power was not exercised directly by the bourgeoisie either.

Whether the Sandinistas were in a minority or a majority in the governmental bodies, the real power was held by the Sandinistas from the beginning. They had in their hands the guerilla army which had been built up in the struggle against Somoza. By 1979, it numbered somewhere between five and ten thousand soldiers. When Somoza’s armed forces collapsed and disintegrated, with many of the National Guard fleeing the country, and the others trying to hide their past service, the FSLN had the only armed force in the country. If it was built up in the course of a guerilla struggle against the regime, it nonetheless shared its basic features with all armies which represent the interests of one class over the rest of society: it was a force set apart from the population, not under its control, a force sufficient to make the Sandinistas in control of the real power in Nicaragua.

In all of this, what has been missing are the independent armed organizations of the working class. That is not to say there aren’t popular militias, nor that the Sandinista Defense Committees don’t mobilize the poor masses. But those committees, which serve as a link between the regime and the masses, are not under control of the masses. The militias are linked with the Nicaraguan army, and under its command. They were not constituted by the working class, nor does the working class have the organized possibility to decide what they will do, nor are they used to carry on the revolutionary transformation of society in the interests of the poor.

Not once has the FSLN encouraged the independent initiative of the masses in carrying out a social struggle against the privileged layers of the old society. In fact, what all these mass organizations set up by the Sandinistas do is to channel the energy of the poor masses – of the working class and the peasantry – into support for the FSLN regime.

Without the constitution of a workers power in Nicaragua, the power will continue to be what it has always been – a bourgeois power. The policy carried out by the regime, no matter in how radical a fashion – will be only that appropriate to all bourgeois revolutions, whether the classic ones of the 18th and 19th century, or the bourgeois nationalist ones of the 20th century: a policy to construct an independent nation, with an independent economy, using whatever radical measures allow that to be accomplished. Whether that policy is carried out in opposition to the specific interests of this or that layer of the bourgeoisie, whether it even might be carried out in opposition to the immediate interest of most of the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie – which let it be said was never anything more than a comprador bourgeoisie closely tied to imperialism – it is still fundamentally a bourgeois policy.

Proletarian Revolution – or Bourgeois Radicalism?

Upon taking power in July 1979, the FSLN, at the head of the new government, issued the “Statute on the Rights of Nicaraguans,” a document guaranteeing a wide range of democratic rights to Nicaraguans who heretofore had lived under the constraints of a severely repressive regime. The new regime took a number of radical economic measures. First, and above all, it moved to expropriate the holdings of the Somoza family, and of its close allies. Given the size of the Somoza holdings this obviously changed the face of the Nicaraguan economy. The land taken from the Somocistas was turned over, in principle at least, to several hundred thousand landless peasants, either directly or in the form of private co-operatives. All banks were quickly expropriated, and the new regime took over control of the main exports: cotton, coffee, sugar, meat and seafood. In the following 5 years, the regime has nationalized some of those industries and that land, the owners of which either had fled the country or were trying to drain the existing capital out of the country. At a certain point, in response to the drain of capital out of Nicaragua, the regime declared all currency above 500 cordobas (50 dollars) to be invalid, unless it was registered.

These measures, radical as they may be, were limited. Other than the Somozas, and those clearly linked to them, or those who later came to try to sabotage the economy, no one saw their property taken away; land was expropriated only from those who left their property unused, and only then, if the size of the property was appreciable (875 to 1250 acres). The agrarian reform law issued in August of 1981 “guaranteed ownership of the land to those who work it,” without any limitation on size. In the 1984 Electoral Platform, the “Plan of Struggle”, the FSLN commits itself to:

“guaranteeing the property of the small-and-medium-sized rural producers who were already landowners before victory, and providing them with support in terms of credit and technical aid. This policy also applies to agricultural producers who work efficiently and produce good yields, whatever the size of the holding .... We will also go on supporting the small-and-medium-sized proprietors, as well as all the farmers and ranchers in general who produce with dedication, efficiency, and patriotism .... The Sandinista Front likewise commits itself to go on guaranteeing access to bank credit for all producers without discrimination ....”

The banks, all of which were nationalized, were fully paid for by state bonds which paid interest. In fact, given that none of the banks of Nicaragua at the time of Somoza’s overthrow were able to turn a profit – almost all were running large annual losses – the expropriation was a way for the owners of the banks to recover their capital. This held true for foreign owners of Nicaraguan banks as well.

Even after all the immense holdings of the Somocistas were taken, the big majority of productive property was held privately, as is still the case today. Tomás Borge explained the position of the FSLN on the question of private holdings in a speech in October of 1980:

“But those who before caused insecurity to the big majority of the population now feel insecure themselves – even though this revolution has been extremely flexible and has given everyone an opportunity. They feel insecure even though we have seriously proposed – and this is not just a tactical or short-term thing – that we maintain a mixed economy and political pluralism .... Obviously this is a vicious circle, because this insecurity they feel causes them to decapitalize their businesses .... We are not prepared to allow them to decapitalize their businesses .... They are all in debt... to the financial system. And it would not even be a radical step, but a simple business procedure, for us to say to them: ‘Gentlemen, either you pay us or you turn over your operations.’ But they aren’t in a position to pay. So what has the revolutionary government done? Has it taken away their businesses? No. In fact it has extended them more loans in order for them to develop their businesses .... [In 1981, 88 per cent of all productive investment in privately owned property was financed through the government.] We could have wiped these people out. We had the power to do it .... We could have taken away all their businesses and we would not have been overthrown; I’m sure of that. But what is most conducive to the economic development of the country is what is best for the Nicaraguan people. So when we talk about a mixed economy, we mean it; and when we talk about political pluralism, we mean it. This is not a short-term maneuver, but our strategic approach.”

We see the same policy enunciated in the current electoral platform which ensures that the mixed economy framework “offers room both for the functioning of the enterprises of the People’s Property Sector and for those in the hands of private owners that correspond to the interests of national development.” And just as the FSLN has done up until now, the platform promises that the FSLN will “continue guaranteeing credit and bank financing as well as capital resources to all Nicaraguans who wish to produce patriotically and efficiently.”

Measures such as those taken by the Sandinistas have been carried out many times before by radical representatives of the bourgeoisie, when they came to power, not just in Cuba and China, which share a number of similarities with Nicaragua and which also have been characterized as workers states by many leftists – but also, for example, by Nasser in Egypt, who came to power not in a revolutionary overturn but in a military coup.

Class Struggle – or National Unity?

In 1969, the FSLN presented its initial program which defined its primary objective in the following terms:

“The FSLN is a politico-military organization, whose strategic objective is to take political power by destroying the military and bureaucratic apparatus of the dictatorship and to establish a revolutionary government based on the worker–peasant alliance and the convergence of all the patriotic anti-imperialist and anti-oligarchic forces in the country.”

This “Sandinista people’s revolution”, as it was henceforth called in the program, had as its determining goal the construction of “a Nicaragua that is free of exploitation, oppression, backwardness; a free, progressive and independent country”. But while the program thus made a kind of obligatory reference about eliminating oppression and exploitation, it never once indicated any intention – even in the long term – to destroy the system of capitalist exploitation which underlay them. It’s clear the goal was imply to construct a country, politically and economically more independent. Tomás Borge expressed this same view in a speech he made this year in commemoration of the 1979 revolution:

“Of all the conquests of the revolution, the most important and sacred one is that for the first time in history, Nicaragua is Nicaragua, and we Nicaraguans are Nicaraguans .... Now Nicaragua is celebrating its fifth year of life. Nicaragua finally exists .... Because it finally exists, we will be implacable with those who seek to deny to our homeland the right to exist, those who want it to go back to being a humiliated colony, the echo chamber of a foreign voice, the shadow of another body.”

Jaime Wheelock, in a speech delivered in January of 1981, entitled “Nicaragua’s Economy and the Fight Against Imperialism”, followed the logic out to its conclusions. He indicated the same goal: “We seek to emerge from poverty and underdevelopment, to counter dependency, and to rehabilitate and reactivate our economy,” adding “while maintaining national unity”. He went on to explain:

“The contradictions inherent to social classes are less important than our material achievements in reconstructing the foundations of national economy, in the struggle for development, in the struggle against backwardness, and indeed in the struggle against economic dependence, because the rationale of the economy is centralized in a plan, in an economic program that assigns a role to each social force .... The middle and upper strata feel that we respect their property, and that they can live somewhat affluently. They feel somewhat at ease because we allow them the possibility of owning some of the means of production. We believe that rather than being a problem for the revolution, this is vital for the revolution. Unity to confront imperialism is vital.”

The U.S. Breaks with the Sandinistas

Much of the real distance that exists today between Nicaragua and U.S. imperialism is the result of imperialism’s actions, and not those of the FSLN. From the beginning, the FSLN made it clear it wanted friendly relations with the U.S., both on the diplomatic and commercial level.

The FSLN regime committed itself on taking power, and has restated the same commitment in its current electoral platform, to pay off its debts to the banks of the imperialist countries, without asking even to renegotiate them. And it offered to all foreign investors 100 per cent ownership of their holdings within Nicaragua – this compared to the 50 per cent share in all foreign holdings which Somoza had taken for himself – as well as more lenient rules for repatriating their profits than had existed under Somoza. On taking power, the FSLN promised not to nationalize the U.S. holdings; still today, in the current electoral platform, it talks only of instituting “a foreign investments law, with regulations capable of attracting to our country the capital resources necessary for our development, while at the same time guaranteeing our interests as a sovereign country.” Certainly, the FSLN has made it clear that all it wants is to limit imperialism’s worst exactions, having gotten rid of imperialism’s henchman, and in this regard, it is respectful toward imperialism’s holdings and toward its banks.

The enmity that seems to exist today comes from imperialism’s actions: from the blockade of imports, from the cancellation of credits already promised to Nicaragua, and above all from the covert war which the CIA has organized against the regime. Where U.S. imperialism will go with this, it is not clear today, although it seems headed in the direction of bringing further pressure, if not open war, to bear on the FSLN regime. But if it would change tomorrow, the FSLN would do everything it could to maintain good relations with the U.S. The FSLN says so, and we have no reason not to believe it.

Mass Mobilization – or the Power of the Poor Masses?

The threat which imperialism continues to hold over the very existence of the Sandinista regime, has made the FSLN mobilize the masses of the Nicaraguan people, and above all, the masses of the poor. Imperialism has not invaded Nicaragua up until today. But if it has not, it is not out of any respect for the integrity of another country, nor even for world opinion – Grenada was the proof, once more, if we needed another one, that imperialism is not swayed by such things. U.S. imperialism has not invaded Nicaragua because it believes it would pay a price bigger than it has been willing to pay up until now. And part of the reason for that price is the apparent readiness of the masses of the Nicaraguan people to fight. Obviously the FSLN regime still has sufficient credit with the population to be able to create and keep in place mass organizations for the defense of the Nicaragua of the FSLN, including armed militias of the poor people. Whatever the reasons for that credit – the respect for the FSLN because it was the most determined fighter against a hated tyrant; the institution of some social programs in a country where Somoza had only taken from the poor; the fact that those today who oppose the FSLN are those most identified in the eyes of the poor as their own oppressors – the mobilization of the masses which still continues is a proof that the masses of the poor population identify their aspirations to an important degree with the Sandinista regime.

None of this is to say that the mass of the poor are in power today, nor that the state headed by the Sandinistas is one of their own making, nor one which defends their interests fundamentally. The class nature of a state – whether bourgeois or workers – is not determined by the fact that the state takes radical measures, nor by the fact that it has earned the enmity of imperialism, nor by the fact that the poor masses took part in the revolutionary overturn, nor by the fact that they remain mobilized after the overturn, nor by the fact that they approve of the regime, but by which class actually took the power in its own hands, that is through its own independent organizations, by which class exercises the power.

This is not simply a terminological dispute – workers state or bourgeois state? – but a question of which class can take the world in the direction of socialism, which class has the possibility to lead the underdeveloped countries out of the impasse that imperialism today puts them in.

Revolutionary Internationalism: The Hallmark of the Working Class

Today, the underdeveloped countries, whether those directly linked to imperialism, or whether those which have attempted to break out of imperialism’s grip, live in a world which is still dominated by imperialism: a world wherein the modern means of technology, which the underdeveloped countries need in order to develop, and which were paid for in part by the wealth which imperialism took from their countries, are controlled by the big imperialist powers; a world wherein their wealth continues to be drained, whether through direct imperialist investment or the unequal rate of exchange in the world markets or both. Until the hold of imperialism over the world is broken, that is, until the power of the bourgeoisie is overthrown in the main imperialist countries and replaced there by the power of the working class, every revolution will come up against these obstacles which preclude the real, full development of a modern country.

The Sandinistas, precisely because their only goal is the development of their own independent nation, can provide no way out of this impasse.

It is the working class which has the possibility to extend its revolution beyond the limits of national borders. Having no reason to put its hopes inn the construction of a nation, its interests are not counterposed to those of the masses in other countries. It has every chance that its example can call forth a response from the oppressed of all the countries of the world. It can address the working class of the other countries. It can try to build up, on the basis of its own revolution, and international revolutionary party, as did the Russian workers revolution of 1917 before it was strangled.

It is not an accident nor an oversight that the FSLN has never once moved in the direction of constructing an international revolutionary party – its goals lie elsewhere than the extension of the revolution to the poor masses of the world.

None of this is to say that revolutionaries today should not take the side of the Sandinistas in their situation, under attack by imperialism. But we do not need to give them attributes they do not have in order to do that. And to confuse their determination in the face of imperialism’s attacks with the revolutionary internationalism of the working class is to obscure what has to be done if the working class is to triumph – in Nicaragua, in our own country, or on the scale of the world.