Nicaragua’s 1979 revolution is back in the news, at least in New York City.
On September 23 The New York Times ran a front-page article on the decades-old Nicaragua solidarity activism of Bill de Blasio, now the frontrunner in New York’s November 5 mayoral election. Some two dozen other articles quickly appeared in the local and national press, most of them recycling old perspectives on the thousands of us who, like de Blasio, traveled to Nicaragua in the 1980s to demonstrate our opposition to the Reagan and Bush administrations’ efforts to overthrow that country’s government.
Journalists on the right naturally tended to repeat Cold War charges against the solidarity activists: We ignored atrocities allegedly committed by the leftist comandantes of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN); deluded by ideology and our government minders, we failed to hear the "whispered anguish" of Nicaraguans in the streets and the market places. Other writers were more balanced in their articles, but no less patronizing. We were "young," they insisted; "fresh-faced," "idealistic" and "more than a touch naïve."
The media consensus was clear: We were credulous communist dupes or else, at best, credulous but idealistic hippies. "Sandalista" was a favorite media putdown back in the 1980s.
Young Idealists, Aging Cynics
The Nicaraguan reality was far more complex and interesting than the picture the US press presented then and continues to present now.
I visited Nicaragua in 1985 and 1987, both times as a volunteer with TecNica, a California-based organization that sponsored tours by North Americans who could provide technical assistance and training in fields like computer programming and machine repair.
Some of the volunteers did seem to be young idealists, but at least half of us had reached middle age and many were veterans of the sectarian infighting that accompanied the decay of the 1960s student movement. "Disillusioned" or even "cynical" would describe us better than "naïve." We were regularly on the lookout for party apparatchiks and Stalinist distortions. It wasn’t hard to find problems: We were free to go where we wanted and to talk to anyone who wanted to talk, as long as we stayed away from army installations and the zones where the US-sponsored "contra" insurgents were carrying out military operations.
But in fact, I never heard whispered anti-Sandinista complaints in the streets - I don’t think I ever met a Nicaraguan who whispered a political opinion. "No me gusta esta revolución," the well-dressed young receptionist at a government agency told me as I waited to consult with the computer department there. "I don’t like this revolution." This was probably the third or fourth sentence she said to me.
She was something of an exception. The majority of the people I met or worked with supported the revolution, although my sampling wasn’t necessarily a cross section of the population. I was volunteering with a government agency, the Dirección Nacional de Informática (DNI), which was charged with developing the country’s computer resources, so the people I worked with tended to be on the government’s side. Still, even among these people there were many varieties and degrees of support for the revolution.
Two young women at the DNI who arranged my work schedule during my visit in 1985 - my "minders" - were strongly pro-Sandinista. They’d worked together on the Atlantic Coast in the 1981 literacy campaign while they were high school students, and they loved to reminisce about those days. But they were still young and much more interested in an upcoming concert by a reggae band than in revolutionary theory.
A programmer at a private company where I consulted - the DNI served private companies as well as government agencies - told me over lunch that he backed the revolution but might eventually cut out for Miami. There were corruptos in the government, he said. "At the very top," he added, pointing upward with one finger. He lowered his voice a little, but not much. Another programmer never mentioned politics, although he was a dedicated worker at the national commercial bank. One day some of us asked him where he stood. He looked embarrassed. He came from a campesino family in the north, he said, looking down at his desk. One day the contras shot his teenage cousin dead while he was working in the fields. No one knew why. Then they cut the hands off the body.
The programmer ran his fingers across his wrists to show where the killers had made the incisions.
Carrots and Contras
We also met with contra supporters. In 1987, a group of us visited a credit cooperative made up of five impoverished campesino families on a hilltop outside Matagalpa only accessible by a steep, badly maintained dirt road.
The cooperative was an example of a new agricultural policy. An economic adviser to the government had explained it to us at a charla ("talk") in the patio of the hospedaje where we stayed. The FSLN initially tried to make collective farms out of the large estates confiscated from the Somozas - the former dictators - and some of their cronies. Like peasants everywhere, Nicaragua’s campesinos had no use for collectivization imposed from above, and the adviser said the policy had helped fuel the contra insurgency. The Sandinistas responded by adopting a new, more popular strategy: encouraging small farmers to form cooperatives on various models, like the ejidos in Mexico. More conservative campesinos, like the families on the hilltop, preferred credit cooperatives, which let them maintain their own private farms while pooling resources to get loans from the rural development bank for seeds and farm equipment.
A local Sandinista politician presided over our meeting with the five families. They had been contra supporters, he said in the self-satisfied style of certain small-town politicians, but had changed after the government offered them bank credits, a part-time teacher for the children, and materials to build a schoolhouse. To the official’s obvious irritation, the campesinos cheerfully announced that they appreciated the credits and the teacher but they still couldn’t stand the Sandinistas.
The five families had prepared a lunch for us. After eating, we split up into smaller groups to visit with our hosts. Three or four of us walked over to a tiny farm supporting a husband, wife and five small children. "I detest these Cubans," the husband told us as we stood outside the family’s little home; his wife and children watched us curiously. I got the feeling the man thought the Sandinistas were literally Cubans.
But, he added, brightening up, the "communists" did some good things. They’d given him new types of seed to plant. "Do you know what zanahorías are?" he asked.
We nodded: carrots. "We never had these before," he said, pulling up a plant from his vegetable patch. It was a sad, shriveled little thing. "La sequía," he shrugged; there had been a drought that fall. But the carrots would be better in the next season, he promised.
There was no mistaking his farmer’s delight in growing things, a much stronger feeling than any concern about distant Cold War struggles.
Lost in Translation
A few evenings later we had a charla in the hospedaje’s patio with three women organizers from the barrios, Managua’s poorer neighborhoods.
The organizers had the tough look of women who have managed to hold on to jobs and raise children in the midst of urban poverty. They were clear about their dedication to the revolution. They looked us in the eye and said they worried about their sons fighting in the army, and they liked North Americans, our music, our baseball and us personally. But if we invaded, they went on, they’d do their very best to kill us.
For some reason these women seemed familiar to me, despite the tropical setting, the palm trees and the hospedaje’s pet parrot wandering around and occasionally pecking at our hands.
They were dedicated to the FSLN, and they always said "we" and "us" when talking about the party. But when they discussed their plans for improving life in the barrios, for organizing day-care centers and training programs, in some ways they sounded like the contra supporters on the hilltop in Matagalpa. What they really appreciated about the FSLN government was that while it provided materials and other resources - to the extent that it could - it left the neighborhoods free to decide how to use them. Of course there were functionaries trying to impose their bureaucratic visions, but the women were obviously ready to deal with them.
This was something that US commentators failed to understand about Nicaragua. There had been a real revolution. It wasn’t a seizure of power by a little band of Marxists; it was tens or hundreds of thousands of people like these women organizing themselves and their neighbors. Poder popular, "people’s power," wasn’t just a slogan. "The people put us in power," the women said, "and if they get tired of us, they’ll throw us out."
The next elections were still three years away, but we pressed the women: What would happen if the FSLN lost? Like most analysts then, they laughed off the possibility. We persisted. Finally, one told us that if they lost, the Sandinistas would simply step down - as in fact they did in 1990. Otherwise, she added, this would be "una revolución de mierda."
A polite Canadian volunteer was translating for the group. She really was "fresh-faced" and "idealistic," just as the media described us, and there were certain things she couldn’t bring herself to say. "Or else," she paraphrased, after a pause, "it would be a not-very-good revolution."
Bringing It All Back Home
At some point I understood why these three women seemed familiar. Except for their broad Nicaraguan accents, they were exactly like Dominican and Puerto Rican welfare rights organizers I’d met on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the early 1970s. They were "ordinary people" like us and like the people we knew back home, and yet somehow they’d managed to overthrow a vicious dictatorship, take charge of their lives, and, at least for a few years, hold off a US-funded counterrevolutionary movement.
I think most solidarity activists had this same realization in one way or another and that this was the truly dangerous thing that we brought back with us. When we came home, people here seemed apathetic and beaten down, at least compared to what we’d experienced in Nicaragua. But we’d learned what "ordinary people" could do, and now we had hope that maybe even in the United States we could some day take charge of our own lives - and let other people do the same in places like Nicaragua.
No doubt this optimism seemed threatening to the pundits and the politicians, so they laughed us off as unfashionably dressed hippies. Most of us - solidarity activists, Bill de Blasio, and the Sandinistas themselves - have made many compromises since then, but I think our old hopes remain threatening to the powerful, especially after the 2008 economic collapse and the disaster of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So they continue to deride us.
It must be really hard to accept the idea that one of us might become mayor of our country’s largest city.