During the 2012 presidential elections, Daniel Ortega’s campaign billboards proclaimed, “Nicaragua: The Joy of Living in Peace: Christian, Socialist, and in Solidarity.” Dan La Botz opens his What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis remarking that “By the second decade of the 2000s, however, there was no socialism, little solidarity, and, for many Nicaraguans, not a lot of joy either.” Six years later, at least solidarity is making a comeback as mass protests spearheaded by students have rocked Ortega’s authoritarian state. Where these will lead is impossible to predict, but those looking to make sense of this latest rebellion can do no better than to begin with this book.
As he readily acknowledges, La Botz draws heavily on authors such as Henri Weber, Mike Gonzalez, and Carlos Vilas writing in the 1980s or ’90s, who have plowed some of this ground before. Yet the passage of time has given La Botz the opportunity not only to synthesize the best of the previous literature, but also to see how life has unfolded as we approach the fortieth anniversary of The Triumph, July 19, 1979. On that day, tens of thousands of ordinary Nicaraguans flooded into Managua to celebrate their defeat of the US-backed Somoza family dictatorship that had ruled through the terror of its National Guard for more than four decades.
La Botz effectively traces Nicaraguan history from colonial times up to the revolution, especially emphasizing the constant presence and pressure of US imperialism; for instance recalling the attempt by proslavery adventurer William Walker to bring Nicaragua into the Union as a slave state before the Civil War. Happily, Walker got the firing squad he deserved. Unhappily, President Woodrow Wilson invaded Nicaragua in 1912 and US Marines remained until 1933, only leaving after six years of armed resistance. Upon withdrawing its troops, the United States built up the Nicaraguan National Guard and incorporated some of the former resistance fighters within it. One radical leader stood out for his refusal to liquidate his opposition, Augusto Sandino. For his troubles, he was lured into a trap and assassinated in 1934. Now relying on the National Guard to maintain order, a string of Democratic and Republican presidents, from FDR to Eisenhower to Carter, looked to the Somoza family (whose patriarch got his start as a colonel in the Guard) to safeguard US commercial interests. Torture and bloodletting seemed like a small price to pay.
By the 1960s various radical organizations, taking inspiration from the Cuban Revolution, initiated protest actions including kidnapping an entire Somoza dinner party in 1974 in exchange for the release of leftist prisoners. Although many cheered on the rebels’ daring, the Somoza dictatorship exacted a terrible revenge on the population, torturing, maiming, and murdering thousands. By 1979, unrest was crystallizing and the revolutionary left (re)merged to form the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). La Botz details all this in a fast-paced and insightful style that doesn’t shy away from sharp critiques of the various leftist currents’ political and organizational outlooks.
By the summer of 1979, tens of thousands of Nicaraguan workers, peasants, and students were fighting a life or death struggle. The terms of the revolution were simple: obliterate the National Guard, or the National Guard will obliterate you. The Guard dropped barrel bombs and fought with US-supplied machine guns. Most of the rebels fought with Molotov cocktails and hunting rifles. An estimated fifty thousand died in the fighting, but the people had passed a point of no return. Jimmy Carter watched and waited, only pressuring Somoza to negotiate after National Guard troops were caught executing an ABC News reporter on camera. Having finally lost his US patron, Somoza and his family boarded a plane for exile, carrying as much loot as they could.
Although terrible in human costs, this story is one of the great revolutionary episodes of the twentieth century. The Nicaraguan insurrection ranks alongside the Paris Commune, the October Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the greatest events of 1968, and Tahrir Square in terms of mass participation and self-sacrifice. The people not only won the revolution, the revolution won the people. That is the single most important fact about 1979. As La Botz writes, “the Nicaraguan people were elated at the victory of the revolution and anxious to create a new Nicaragua.”
This “new Nicaragua” was made flesh immediately. The National Guard and the secret police were liquidated, either being killed or driven out of the country. The Somoza family’s property was confiscated and turned over to the popular Sandinista state. Tens of thousands of landless peasants received plots to farm. A student-led campaign reduced illiteracy from an incredible 50 percent to just 13 percent within five months. And twenty days after The Triumph, the Sandinista government created the Single National Health System under the principles that “Health is the right of all and is the responsibility of the state” and “the community should participate in all the health system’s activities.” And if there were real limits, the fact that women constituted a significant percentage of the insurrection’s fighters established feminism and women’s liberation as a real force. All these steps were wildly popular with workers, peasants, students, and the poor. So, what went wrong?
Most of the revolution’s defenders place the lion’s share of the blame for the Sandinista’s 1990 electoral defeat by a pro-US candidate on the brutality of the Contra War and the population’s exhaustion. La Botz outlines the war’s impact, explaining how Ronald Reagan’s “Freedom Fighters” took the lives of 30,865 Nicaraguans, maimed or injured another 30,000, and cost the country of 2.5 million inhabitants approximately $1.9 billion over the course of the ten-year conflict. In the wake of Vietnam, the US population remained wary of sending US troops, so Reagan ordered the CIA to direct the operation and fund it through Col. Oliver North’s secret dealings that eventually came to light in the Iran-Contra scandal. In the end, Reagan could not defeat the revolution militarily, but he did bleed the people dry.
La Botz agrees that the Contra War, as well as the defeat of revolutions in El Salvador and Guatemala, “ultimately doomed” the Nicaraguan Revolution; at the same time, he argues that the “FSLN’s lack of commitment to democracy contributed significantly to the revolution’s failure.” He makes this case convincingly by showing how the FSLN leadership—of whom Ortega was the most important but not only figure—never considered following the example of the Russian Revolution in relying on direct elections by workers, students, peasants, soldiers, and the poor in a system of councils or “soviets.” In fact, as he notes, the FSLN didn’t even call a party congress to elect its own leadership until after 1990. According to La Botz, this failure alienated the FSLN’s mass base and predisposed many high-ranking party leaders to conflate their own positions and power with the politics of liberation. As he puts it, “It was this problem—the lack of democracy—that led to the specific sort of betrayal of the revolution, and to the unique way in which the FSLN was transformed into an authoritarian party. . . . It was the authoritarian politics and ethos of the FLSN that created Daniel Ortega, not the other way around.”
La Botz is undoubtedly right to point to this dangerous tendency, and it has the great virtue of helping orient the international left with respect to the need for solidarity with the 2018 rebellion against Ortega’s regime. Further, What Went Wrong? articulates the necessity for a “new revolutionary movement that places at the center of its political ideas the understanding that socialism is only possible with democracy, and democracy is only possible with socialism.”
Yet, I do wonder if, in stressing this point, La Botz hasn’t succumbed to an overgeneralization. As he writes, “We can only [my emphasis] understand what happened in the Nicaraguan Revolution (and many other Third World countries in the postwar period) if we recognize that for about 70 years there was a three-cornered struggle for power between three social and political systems: capitalism, bureaucratic Communism, and working-class movements struggle to establish democratic socialism.”
Certainly, the pernicious influence of Stalinism in the socialist movement conditioned what took place in Nicaragua. But I think we must begin by assuming there was a tremendously open and liberatory revolution exploding in Nicaragua the few years after 1979. La Botz is right that the FSLN leadership used its tremendous moral and political authority to crack down on leftist opponents. However, should we foreclose the possibility that the Nicaraguan masses might not have chafed more under, and demanded more from, the Sandinista leadership (the right to strike, to widespread and frequent elections, to expropriate US and foreign companies, etc.) had not the Contra War (and US embargo) not sapped the vitality and confidence of the very same people who had just smashed the National Guard?
Of course, counterfactuals only get you so far. The point is that the ideology of the Sandinista leadership should not be seen as an original sin that precluded different potentials arising from elsewhere, or even from within the various tendencies of Sandinismo. Perhaps what Victor Serge remarked about the Russian experience might also apply to Nicaragua, “It is often said that ‘the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning.’ Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it.”
This debate notwithstanding, I cannot recommend La Botz’s book highly enough. It is meticulously researched, but never succumbs to academic jargon. It provides readers with the facts and the drama but makes its theoretical framework clear. It is a gateway into the history of one of the last century’s most heroic revolutions, and it will serve anyone who reads it well in preparing for our century’s coming upheavals. Paraphrasing a popular slogan from 1979: ¡Nicaragua venció, el pueblo vencerá!