New Internationalist

All change: two successful revolutions

Issue 080

This year two apparently firmly-rooted dictatorships have been overthrown by popular movements. Despite all the apparatus of state control at their behest, both the Shah of Iran and Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua are gone. The peoples of two countries have been given a fresh start - though whether their lives will be better or worse in the future it is too early to say.

Below EDUARDO CRAWLEY, a specialist in Latin American affairs, and Iranian journalist VAHE PETROSSIAN, report on the social, political and economic factors underlying two successful revolutions.

Photo: Koen Wessing
An old lady of Managua standing among the rubble of the civil war. Photo: Koen Wessing

SANDINISTAS: the guerrilla dream come true

Four years ago General Somoza of Nicaragua dismissed the Sandinistas as "a small group of youngsters". Today that small group of youngsters rule Nicaragua, and Somoza is in discredited exile. Report by EDUARDO CRAWLEY.

Photo: Contemporary Archive on Latin America
Photo: Contemporary Archive on Latin America

‘What is the political significance of this guerrilla organisation? None whatsoever! This is a small group of youngsters who have been indoctrinated .... I could do exactly the same to Castro, I could do it in the Soviet Union, if I were willing to spend the money, to seek out the dissidents and so on. But I know that they will die! There is no more than crust to this little pie!’

The speaker was General Anastasio Somoza Debayle, ruler and virtual owner of Nicaragua, as had been his elder brother and his father before him, all the .way back to 1936. The moment, mid­1975. The guerrilla organisation hg was so summarily dismissing was the Frente Sandinista de Liberation National (FSLN). Four years later it was to remove Somoza from power for good.

The history of the FSLN can be traced back to the euphoric aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, and the appearance of a Cuban-backed guerrilla column naming itself after Rigoberto Lopez Perez, the young poet from Leon who had been killed after assassinating the first Somoza in 1956. Their attempt to ‘liberate’ Nicaragua met with disaster: they were ambushed by the Honduran and Nicaraguan armies and decimated. Their only consolation, when the survivors got back to Cuba, was that they merited Che Guevara’s congratulations and the gift of one of the first, mimeographed copies of Guevara’s handbook on guerrilla warfare.

In 1961, drawing inspiration from the Cuban Revolution and from the guerrilla war conducted by Cesar Augusto Sandino in the late 1920s and early 1930s, against US occupation forces, the FSLN was created. It started pre­paring to go up into the hills of the northern departments, to wage war on the Somozas. If the then President, Luis Somoza Debayle, and his brother Anastasio actually heard about the venture at the time, they did not rank it higher than the many minor threats which the National Guard had become quite used to dealing with.

The FSLN made its real debut a few years later. During this period, the guerrillas embarked upon a series of sloppily organised raids. Somoza’s National Guard, a US-trained force well­versed in repression, cracked down hard on the would-be revolutionaries, easily picking up many of their none-too­clandestine supporters in the universities and chasing the raiders round the countryside. They took time off only for the occasional ‘exemplary’ reprisal against suspected collaborators. In a matter of months, the National Guard landed a prize catch: Carlos Fonseca Amador, the leader of the FSLN.

The President’s intervention saved Fonseca from almost certain death at the hands of his interrogators. The guerrilla leader was tried, sentenced and went into exile in Costa Rica.

The move to urban insurrection Meanwhile in distant Bolivia, Che Guevara was putting a full stop to the first, disastrous chapter in the history of Latin American guerrilla warfare. His inglorious death at the hands of US-trained Bolivian Rangers brought much heart-searching among the Latin American Left. The more radical elements began to dump the old theories of rural insurrection and to adopt the newer notion of urban guerrilla action.

The Frente Sandinista was among the pioneers of this trend. As early as September 1968 it had created an urban unit in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. Although activities in rural areas did not cease, they became increasingly confined to the training of cadres recruited in the cities, while the urban guerrillas began to raid banks and stores in the capital. The experiment was short­lived. The urban ring was smashed by the National Guard, and Somoza proudly announced that the FSLN was dead. His victory seemed complete when the authorities of neighbouring Costa Rica apprehended the exiled Sandinista leader, Carlos Fonseca, and jailed him on a charge of robbery.

In October 1970, however, the FSLN reappeared with a vengeance, attracting world attention by hijacking a plane belonging to the Costa Rican national airline, and forcing the Costa Rican authorities to free Fonseca and fly him to Cuba. It was the earthquake of December 1972, and its sequel of corruption and heartless profiteering by the Somoza regime, which finally turned a large segment of the population, including the middle classes and many independent businessmen, against the dictator.

The universities became active centres of radical discontent. Student organisations became recruiting centres for the FSLN; owners of small fincas began to turn a blind eye when the y discovered that their teenage children were converting their farms into weekend guerrilla training camps. And soon the whispered rumours about a Sandinista build-up received confirmation: a fresh wave of guerrilla raids forced Somoza to send the National Guard back into the field.

On 27 December 1974, at the home of former Minister Jose Maria Castillo Quant, a private party was being held to bid farewell to the US Ambassador. Somoza was well represented by his brother-in-law, his cousin and his nephew. None of those present had any way of knowing that the party had been chosen by the FSLN as the best opportunity to pull off a spectacular stunt: the kidnapping of the Ambassador.

The guerrilleros got their timing wrong, by the time they burst into the residence, guns blazing, the Ambassador had left. But the catch was nonetheless remarkable: members of the Somoza family, ministers, ambassadors, leading businessmen and their wives. An indignant Somoza was forced to broadcast a Sandinista communique, pay them a couple of million dollars ransom, and allow them to be driven along a route lined by cheering Managuans to the ,airport, where a number of comrades released from prison were waiting to fly with them to the safety of Havana.

Photo: Contemporary Archive on Latin America
'A people cannot discuss its sovereinty and liberty without having arms in its hands to defend itself.' Woodcut representation and quote from A.C. Sandino, a former Nicaraguan guerilla leader. Photo: Contemporary Archive on Latin America

Although the actual perpetrators of the raid were well beyond Somoza’s reach, countrywide repression began almost immediately. A state of siege was decreed, press censorship was introduced, military tribunals were set up. Church sources alone recorded close to 400 ‘disappearances’ in the after­math of the raid, while Amnesty International spoke of 200 peasants who had disappeared and ‘as many as 500 political prisoners’.

Paradoxically, the 27 December raid did not foreshadow an immediate strengthening of the FSLN. Ideological squabbles erupted between two factions. A third group, the Terceristas, arose out of an attempt to mediate and eventually, through its adoption of a more open approach to the participation of other, non-Marxist opposition forces, attracted the bulk of the Sandinista rank and file, as well as important contingents of ‘Social-Christian’ and ‘Social Democrat’ elements.

The guerillas ready to strike

During 1976 it seemed as if Somoza was winning his little war against the FSLN. The founder of the I rente, Carlos Fonseca Amador, was killed in action in November of that year, though few people believed Somoza when he announced it.

Factionalism prevented the FSLN from taking advantage of the uncertainty caused in 1977 when Somoza suffered a severe heart attack and had to be flown to Miami for urgent treatment. But by October of that year the guerrilla forces were ready to strike.

Three ‘War Fronts’ had been organised. The southern ‘War Front’ attacked La Fortaleza barracks in San Carlos; the northern unit attacked Guardia patrols and briefly occupied Mosonte; and the central forces made a series of raids on Masaya, Altos de Masaya and Esquipulas. By the time the Guardia mounted a counter-offensive the guerrilleros had disappeared.

Following their October raids, the FSLN called for the formation of a ‘Broad Anti-Somoza Front’ comprising all Opposition forces, regardless of their political, persuasion. The reply was soon on its way. Twelve prominent Nicaraguans, representing a cross-section of the country’s middle classes issued a manifesto declaring.... ‘We, the signatories of this document, call on all conscientious Nicaraguans to provide a national solution which cannot exclude the participation of the Frente Sandinista de Liberation National if it is to guarantee a permanent and effective peace.’

In January 1978 the assassination of a leading Opposition figure, newspaper editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, acted as the catalyst the FSLN had been waiting for. Nicaragua’s business community declared a lock-out; the unions followed suit calling their members out on a general strike. Particularly violent rioting broke out. The National Guard was ordered to suppress the uprisings swiftly and completely; at least thirty people were killed in armed clashes, and scores were arrested. The lock-out-cum-general­strike fizzled out after three weeks, but the country did not return to normal. On 22 August 1978, a group of 25 uniformed Sandinistas drove into the heart of Managua and marched unopposed into the Palacio National, seat of Congress and of a number of government agencies, and captured 1,500 hostages, including the Interior Minister and one of Somoza’s cousins. Somoza was forced to release 59 political prisoners, pay ransom and again allow the Sandinistas to be waved off at the airport by a delirious crowd.

Wholesale destruction - the fault of ‘the Communists’

The ‘Broad Opposition Front’ again called a general strike and lock-out. Groups of spontaneous armed muchachos took to the streets in many Nicaraguan towns, soon to be joined by Frente units.

With cool detachment, Somoza tackled one rebel stronghold at a time, ordering heavy airborne attacks that razed most city centres to the ground, and then following up with assaults by Guardia units. The destruction caused by the bombing, strafing and shelling was simply blamed on ‘the Communists’.

Television carried this bloody episode around the world, arousing widespread sympathy for the anti-Somoza forces perhaps more significantly, convincing the United States - patron and supporter of the regime for 42 years - that the time had come to ‘persuade’ Somoza to step down. Simultaneously an agreement was hammered out between the three factions of the FSLN, and a unified military command appeared to direct a force replenished by droves of volunteers and by substantial injections of cash from abroad.

In May 1979, the Frente confidently announced that it was launching its ‘final offensive’. As before, the guerrilla units struck simultaneously all over the country. This time, however, they took the war into Managua itself, forcing Somoza to use his best troops there, while the other Frente units kept another large National Guard force under constant pressure in the south, launching attack after attack from across the Costa Rican border. Somoza’s forces fought back as savagely as before, but this time the Frente refused to disappear.

The end came as an anticlimax. There was no ‘last stand’. Somoza’s resignation and flight into exile was sudden, as was the brief comic opera interlude of his ‘constitutional successor’, which lasted only 36 hours. There was no triumphal march of the rebels into Managua, as there had been in Cuba 20 years earlier. Overnight, the Sandinistas were in charge. The regime had crumbled and vanished into the rubble left by Somoza’s bombers.

Eduardo Crawley is editor of the Latin American Annual Review and author of an important new book on Somoza’s rule: Dictator’s Never Die - A portrait of Nicaragua and the Somoza’, published by Christopher (c) Hurst & Co. f7.50

IRAN at least getting a fresh tort

The revolution which overthrew the Shah of Iran, often compared with the landmark French and Russian revolutions, may well deserve a historical niche all its own. It would be difficult to think of another unarmed popular uprising which was sustained over such a long period by so many people - against a police and army with nearly unlimited firepower. Report by VANE PETROSSIAN.

Nobody knows how many people were killed and wounded in the Iranian revolution between late 1977 and the battle for Teheran on 10-12 February 1979. The new regime says 60,000 killed and 120,000 wounded. Perhaps they exaggerate but at least some 15,000 people died and 45,000 were wounded. Of greater significance to Iranians than the exact numbers is the fact that most of the casualties were caused by security forces firing into crowds of largely peaceful demonstrators.

The revolutionaries succeeded in the end because they were ready to face massacre and did not tackle the Shah’s forces head on. What gave them the courage to. face such odds? It was a determinatin to end the peculiar rule of the Shah and the aberrations imposed on Iran by the dominant role of the oil industry.

In 1953 the Shah returned to plenary power, riding on the back of the CIA­organised coup against the nationalist Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. In 1957 he set up SAVAK, the notorious secret police, again with the help of the CIA. In 1963 he crushed the opposition forces. At first, however, he had to walk warily because he lacked the necessary state apparatus and because he had to take account of Western public opinion. But in 1965 after an assassination attempt he appointed General Nematollah Nassiri as head of SAVAK and gave him virtual carte blanche to put down his enemies. Massive, organised state terror had begun. That provoked a guerrilla movement in the countryside, later in the towns, which was most active from 1971 to 1976. The yet fiercer reprisals (imprisonment, torture and execution) alienated large sections of the people but the Shah’s rule was at no time directly threatened.

Indeed, when oil prices rose in late 1973 and the Shah launched a massive spending spree to industrialise the country and turn it into a major world power within a dozen years, he seemed to have reached the pinnacle of power and popularity. But his unrealistic and grandiose plans soon began to go wrong.

It became apparent in 1975. Corruption and mismanagement were spreading. Although increased government spending meant there was quick money to be made, the Shah was having to rely upon thousands of imported workers and technicians. Agriculture was being neglected and villagers were flocking into shanty towns around the main cities. Inflation was running at 30 to 50 per cent per year. Housing was becoming nearly impossible to find. The forced march towards the Shah’s ‘Great Civilisation’ was destroying traditions and creating a rootless society. His promise of a new era of prosperity amounted in reality to social, economic and cultural dislocation.

Eventually growing public outrage forced the government to impose economic and financial, restrictions but these only served to alienate those people who had profited most from the boom and who therefore had been the Shah’s strongests supporters. These measures did not help the economy; they only raised the stakes in the already rampant corruption. The bureaucracy, the military the secret police and the royal hangers­on went their own sweet way; the all­powerful Shah was powerless to control them.

The spark that ignited the revolution occurred early in 1977. Ali Asghar Haj Seyyed Javadi, a prominent liberal writer, addressed an open letter to the Shah warning him of impending disaster and calling for a return to constitutional government. He could well have expected instant arrest but in fact remained un-molested. Public dissatisfaction was at such a pitch that the Shah felt he had to allow some criticism as a safety valve. In addition, Jimmy Carter, the new President of the United States, had been making declarations about the neglect of human rights in countries such as Iran.

But the Shah’s ‘liberal’ mood did not last. Later that year poetry readings and lectures attended by audiences numbering up to 10,000 developed into political gatherings which bitterly attacked the Shah’s policies and government.

In response SAVAK move in. Trained commando squads armed with heavy sticks and chains broke up the meetings, killing few but injuring thousands. Riot police quickly broke up student protest marches. SAVAK’s reprisals appeared to have left the opposition in a state of intimidated shock and as 1978 began the Shah seemed to have won a generous breathing space. But in fact the challenge to his leadership could not easily be controlled, although the struggle looked like being a difficult and lengthy one - perhaps taking two, three or more years. Then a series of unexpected events involving the Moslem religion transformed the struggle.

In January 1978 an article in the Persian-language daily Ettelaat attacked the exiled religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in crudely offensive terms. The next day several thousand people in the holy city of Qom held a protest march; police opened fire, killing several dozen demonstrators. At ceremonies held in Tabriz 40 days later to commemmorate the Qom dead, police once again responded with bullets. Large-scale rioting ensued in which many public buildings, cinemas and banks were attacked and burned. Similar incidents took place in Yazd and Masgad - at regular 40-day intervals. From a limited rebellion mostly involving intellectuals, students and leftists in Tehran, the opposition movement had spread to most major cities and now potentially involved millions of the Moslem faithful.

The entry of the Moslem religious movement clearly marked a turning point in the battle to overthrow the Shah. What is less clear is why the mullahs joined in. The most convincing explanation is that the Shah was trying to repeat his victory of 1963, when he successfully accused his opponents of being religious fanatics and thus won enough domestic and foreign support to bring out the troops against them.

But what had worked in 1963 would not work in 1978. Opposition to the Shah was now much more widespread. His promises of economic prosperity and liberalisation were no longer believed. Economically, as a result of vast mis­management and waste, he had no elbow room.

Through 1978 his proposals for liberalising the government won praise abroad, particularly from the Carter administration, but Iranians saw it as a ruse to buy time. Their scepticism was confirmed by the activities of SAVAK and hired thugs. The press tried to pass these off as ‘clashes between rival factions and tribes’ but the victims knew better and few people were unaffected by the campaign of beatings, burnings, kidnappings and killings carried out by the Shah’s desperate yet arrogant security chiefs; the campaign made him hundreds of bitter new enemies every day.

By mid-1978 the widespread opposition to the Shah had developed into a popular revolutionary movement. In August, when over 600 people (though less than 400 by government account) died in a cinema fire in Abadan, the public immediately blamed SAVAK, especially as the police chief in Abadan was the same man as had been responsible for the January shooting of demonstrators in Qom.

The Shah, desperate to win back public favour, set up a new ‘reconciliation’ cabinet headed by his trusted friend Jaafar Sharif-Emami, which made various placatory gestures towards religious beliefs, such as the banning of gambling and casinos and reintroducing the traditional Islamic calendar, but the opposition dismissed these as window­dressing. They wanted a political role for themselves and they did not get it.

The Sharif-Emami government was the Shah’s last attempt to mix political appeasement with physical intimidation. Its failure became clear in the first week of September 1978, when over a million people turned up for two protest marches in Teheran. The second one, on 7 September, took place although the military had threatened a massacre and although the religious organisers had therefore cancelled it. Clearly this was a full-scale popular uprising which neither the Shah nor the religious leaders could control.

The next day, the first day of martial law in Tehran, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of unarmed demonstrators were killed in Jaleh Square. This tragedy served only to intensify the determination that the Shah must go.

At first the opposition movement had lacked a leader. Over the past twenty years the Shah had eliminated them all - all except one, Ayatollah Khomeini, one of the leaders of the Shia sect of Moslems. He had been exiled for his part in the mass demonstrations of 1963 and over the years most Iranians had forgotten him. In the early 1970s students and other middle class youth, rebelling against the new materialism, had returned to traditions and religion but they had rallied around progressive religious figures such as Dr. Ali Shariati and had passed Khomeini by. But these heroes of the young were living in Iran and so had been forced to compromise, whereas Khomeini, in exile, had consistently called for the Shah’s overthrow.

Now in 1978 he finally found his mass audience. His appeals in writing and on cassette tapes were swiftly distributed through the mosques and bazaars. The slogan ‘Death to the Shah’ became ‘Khomeini is our leader’. The revolutionaries hardly knew Khomeini but they had faith that he was the only person who would not compromise and betray them.

There were many warnings that Khomeini was basically a very religious and conservative man; some called him reactionary. Iranians were told that in replacing the Shah by Khomeini they were jumping from the frying pan into the fire. But far too many felt they were already in the fire and did not care where they jumped. Their one thought was that the Shah must go. With the toppling of the last of the Imperial followers in the Teheran battle of 10-12 February, Iranians were at least getting a fresh start.

Vahe Petrossian is a correspondent of the Middle East Economic Digest.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on All change: two successful revolutions

Leave your comment