From The Bottom Up
SOCIALISM | Nicaragua's struggle to survive
‘We stored guns under the floor just over there,’ says Lucrecia Narvaez, pointing to a spot in her kitchen. ‘Somoza’s men suspected us of something and they ransacked the house twice. But they never found anything. We were lucky.’
It’s an ordinary house, with plaster crumbling off the walls, down the road from the great cathedral in the university city of Leon. But it’s also only a few hundred yards from the notorious jail where the National Guard tortured and murdered opponents of the Somoza regime. The grey concrete building, now deserted and spattered with bullet marks, is a stark reminder of four decades of corruption, oppression and United States domination which ended in July 1979 - when the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) came to power.
For Lucrecia, memories of the struggle against Somoza are still fresh: ‘I first became involved in the revolution in 1977. We used to support the Front by passing on messages and giving shelter to comrades who needed a place to hide. It was also then that I started going to political meetings. I can say that my political education really began then. Look, the Front gave me these letters .
Beaming with pride, she hands me a couple of well-worn letters signed by an official of the FSLN, testifying that she and her family actively supported the revolution before ‘the triumph of the people’ in 1979. Although not a member of the FSLN, Lucrecia is still an active supporter. Her three sons have all joined the Sandinista People’s Army and are now stationed somewhere in the mountains along Nicaragua’s border with Honduras.
Unlike many socialist countries. Nicaragua’s revolution has been, from the very start, a genuine people’s revolution based on mass support - not a ‘palace coup or a pseudo-revolution imposed by a foreign power. The victory over Somoza was won not only by FSLN fighters armed with military weapons. For every armed combatant there were scores of unarmed men, women and children who staged demonstrations and strikes, built trenches and barricades, supplied food and coffee to FSLN fighters, carried ammunition and reloaded weapons, served as messengers and look-outs and allowed their homes to be used as ‘safe houses’, medical posts and storage places for arms and ammunition.
Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Nicaraguans were involved in overthrowing Somoza, a victory which cost 50,000 lives. But the revolution did not stop when the Sandinistas marched triumphantly into Managua. The ‘triumph’, as it is commonly called, was merely the start of a new phase of the revolution, calling for a different type of involvement from the people.
For many Nicaraguans. this has meant joining a political party and trying to influence the direction of the revolution through the ballot box, In elections for the Presidency and the National Assembly in November 1984, three-quarters of the electors went to the polls. The FSLN received 67 per cent of the vote and another 18 per cent went to five other parties which strongly support the revolution, If the ballot box is any guide (and I believe it certainly is), then there is no doubt that public support for the revolution is very widespread and goes beyond the ranks of FSLN supporters.
But for most Nicaraguans participation in the revolution on a routine basis means getting involved in one or more of the many mass organizations’ - youth and women’s movements, neighbourhood associations, professional groups and trade unions, Trade union membership, for example, shot up from 6 per cent of the workforce in 1979 to 55 per cent in 1984, and is still growing rapidly,
In purely economic terms Lucrecia and her family don’t seem to have gained greatly from the revolution, Like most low-income urban dwellers, they have been hit very hard by recent steep rises in the prices of rice, maize and beans - their staple foods, Cooking oil and kerosene are also scarce and expensive.
‘Until about a year ago things were still good,’ says Lucrecia, ‘certainly much better than before the triumph, But today, with the economic crisis, many people in the city just don’t earn enough money to be able to buy enough good food, Still, I’m not blaming the revolution for the economic crisis, You’ve got to remember that we’ve suffered four years of economic and military aggression from the United States,
‘And we’ve still gained a lot from the revolution, Before, under Somoza, we lived in a real nightmare. There were armed men roaming the streets who would kill or torture you if they felt like it, That’s all a thing of the past now, And we do have free health care now, and schools for our children, In the countryside, the campesinos are getting land,
If city dwellers like Lucrecia Narvaez are determined to defend the revolution, these feelings are even stronger among the peasantry, Nicaragua’s campesinos have gained most from the social and economic changes brought about by the revolution, Take land reform for example, In response to pressure from rural trade unions, the government has redistributed 2 million acres of agricultural land to some 93,000 families over the past five years. Many work their plots individually and others have formed co-operatives - around 3,000 by 1984,
A few months ago I visited Santiago Arauz Co-operative, high up in the rugged mountains about 30 kilometres from the border with Honduras, The co-operative started nearly three years ago with 650 hectares of land provided by the government, Twenty-five families now live on the site, grazing beef cattle for sale and growing maize, beans and vegetables for their own use. As they go about their work the men carry automatic rifles and spare ammunition clips. Amancio Perez, one of the founding members of the co-operative, explains why.
‘We’re close to the border with Honduras here so the contras are never far away, For the first couple of years we were never attacked, Then, on the night of December31 last year, a big force of contras attacked us. There must have been at least a hundred and they used mortars, automatic weapons and hand grenades. There were no soldiers stationed here then and we had only a dozen rifles to defend ourselves with, The attack lasted over four hours. When dawn came we found that six of our people were dead - three men including my brother Jose Angel, two 14 year-old boys and a 20 year-old girl. Maria Zunilda - my niece. They all died fighting,
For campesinos like Amancio Perez a gun is an important as a plough or a hoe for survival today, and the government has armed 200.000 peasants and militia in towns and cities, A government that arms its people for self-defence must be pretty confident of its support. And there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the Nicaraguan peasantry do support both the FSLN and the revolution, Yet this does not mean that they support or even understand the FSLN’s political programme, which is a rather vaguely defined form of socialism. Mention the word socialisino and the average Nicaraguan peasant will probably look blank or say he wants no part of it. His or her inspiration is not Marx or Lenin but Sandino, the Nicaraguan nationalist leader who fought the US marines to a standstill in a long guerilla war over 50 years ago. The revolution, as far as most ordinary Nicaraguans are concerned, is more about national independence than socialism. The most popular slogan is still Patria libre o morir - a free country or die.
But it is a revolution for which a sizeable minority of Nicaraguans are by no means prepared to die. Powerful sectors of the population - owners of large business, wealthy landowners and other sections of the middle class - are implacably opposed to the revolution.
The Sandinistas insist that they are committed to political pluralism and a mixed economy in which the private sector will retain a large role. These assurances, however, have generally fallen on deaf ears.
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has also distanced itself from the revolution. Although four priests are government ministers, the Church accuses the government of, among other things, using education as a means of political indoctrination and of encouraging atheism. In April last year the Catholic bishops even called for unconditional negotiations with the contras, while failing to condemn contra attacks which have claimed over 7,000 casualties (mostly civilians), caused hundreds of millions of dollars of material damage and reduced export earnings by at least one third. For many Nicaraguans - including many who support the revolution but have their differences with the FSLN - this call was very close to an act of treason.
The truth is that for large sections of the Nicaraguan middle class and for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the Nicaraguan people, organized for the first time in their own trade unions, neighbourhood associations and other mass organizations, are a frightening new phenomenon.
But although there is a strong internal reaction against the revolution, this in itself is insufficient to destabilize either the FSLN or the revolution. Even US economic pressure is unlikely to seriously weaken support for the FSLN among the people, especially among the peasantry. This is why the United States is resorting to military aggression via the contras, who are now assured of strong financial backing from official and private US sources, The question is how long a poor country of only 3 million people can sustain a war against the most powerful nation on earth, Amancio Perez is in no doubt:
‘We’re ready to resist,’ he says, ‘right to the end. We’ll defend ourselves with anything we have - with axes if necessary. If Vietnam could resist for so long, so can we. Even with the North American aggression, life in Nicaragua is much better than before.
We now have land to grow food, we have schools, we have free health care. All that is stopping us now from benefiting more from the revolution is North American imperialism.’
Glen Williams is afreelance journalist who has just returned from Nicaragua.