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Mike Gonzalez

The Nicaraguan Revolution:
classes, masses and the Sandinista state

(Autumn 1982)

From International Socialism 2 : 17, Autumn 1982, pp. 39–90.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On July 16th, 1979, five people boarded a plane in Costa Rica; they were on their way to Leon, the second city of Nicaragua. The five constituted the Provisional Government of Reconstruction of Nicaragua – a small country of under 3 million people at the strategic heart of Central America. They represented different social forces. Daniel Ortega was a member of the National Directorate of the Frente Sandinista; Moises Hassan, a mathematician, and Sergio Ramirez, a writer, were long-standing members of the Frente. The other two came from very different backgrounds. Alfonso Robelo, a wealthy cotton farmer and industrialist, was leader of the National Democratic Movement (MDN) and head of the private enterprise organisation COSEP; Violeta Chamorro was the widow of a newspaper editor who had led the bourgeois opposition to Somoza for many years.

On the same day, Anastasio Somoza, the last of a dynasty that had determined the destiny of Nicaragua since 1934, was in his concrete bunker, built on a hill at the centre of the capital, Managua, overlooking the lake of Tiscapa. From there he was directing a massive military operation throughout the city. During the day, his planes bombed factories and hospitals, while helicopters dropped 500 lb oil drums full of explosive on the working-class districts. Later, the National Guard, a highly trained military force that was the basis of his power, swept through the same districts, killing and torturing – partly in search of hidden members of the Frente Sandinista, partly in order to terrorise the population.

That night in the bunker, and surrounded by the elite of the National Guard, Somoza and his mistress Dinorah Sampson drank too much and listened to the radio reports. What they heard was that six of Nicaragua’s main towns were under the control of insurrectionary forces. Many of the National Guard had either succumbed to the people’s vengeance or were being held for trial. The streets were controlled by young men and women wearing the red and black of the Sandinistas and carrying every kind of weapon, from sophisticated automatics to machetes.

Some of the more important organisations cited


Sandinista National Liberation Front (formed 1961, called Sandinista from 1963).


United National Opposition; bourgeois opposition front formed 1967.


United Democratic Liberation; broad opposition front led by P.J. Chamorro; formed 1974 (including PSN).


Last anti-Somoza bourgeois front, formed 1978 after Chamorro’s murder; led by Alfonso Robelo.


Broad front of political opponents to Somoza plus trade unions and including the FSLN.
Formed 1978.


Formed February 1979 after breakup of FAO.
Opposition front under FSLN leadership.


Nicaraguan Socialist Party (in fact the Communist Party) formed 1944.


Nicaraguan Communist Party; small Stalinist organisation, split from PSN in 1977 over collaboration with the FSLN.


Workers Front; small Maoist organisation, formed in 1970 after split from FSLN.
Newspaper, El Pueblo closed in 1980.


Major bourgeois opposition party after 1979.
Led by Robelo, it became ‘semi-clandestine’ in mid 1982.


The business organisation, also led by Robelo before he left Nicaragua in April 1982.


PSN-led trade union federation.


Christian Democrat trade union organisation.


Trade union federation formed in 1970s by the American AFL-CIO.


Sandinista Trade Union Federation, formed after the revolution.


Agricultural Sandinista Workers Union, first formed in 1978.


Sandinista organisation of peasants and small farmers, formed 1981.


Sandinista (neighbourhood) Defence Committees.


Sandinista Womens’ Organisation.


Sandinista Youth Organisation.

Chronology of the Nicaraguan Revolution


Zelaya takes power.


Zelaya overthrown; US marines enter Nicaragua.


Liberal rising under Moncada followed by surrender.
One general – Sandino – refuses to lay down his arms and continues struggle against US occupation.


US troops leave Nicaragua; Somoza appointed head of the National Guard; Sandino retires to Wiwili.


Sandino murdered by Somoza.


Anastasio Somoza takes power.


The first Somoza assassinated; replaced by his son Luis.


Sandinista Front formed.


FSLN pursues guerrilla war strategy.


Death of Luis Somoza; replaced by his brother Anastasio II.
Jan. 22, 400 opposition demonstrators killed.


Earthquake destroys Managua; 20,000 dead.


Broad opposition front – UDEL – formed with participation of the PSN.
FSLN attacks Somocista Christmas party; wins release of prisoners.
Martial law imposed.


FSLN splits into tendencies – two at first, then three.


Carlos Fonseca, founder of the FSLN, killed in action.


Martial Law ended (September); FSLN Insurrectional Tendency attacks three National Guard barracks.
Group of Twelve formed.


Assassination of Chamorro; bosses’ strike called (January).
Rising of Monimbo (February).
FAO formed (May).
National student strike (June).
MPU formed; group of twelve return to Nicaragua (July).
Attack on the National palace by FSLN; FAO calls general strike (August).
Mass insurrections in Leon, Masaya, Esteli (September).
US tries to negotiate transfer of power from Somoza – but Somoza refuses (October)


FPR organised by FSLN (February).
Reunification of the three FSLN tendencies (March).
‘Final Offensive’ launched north and south; general strike (April).
Offensive continues; first towns liberated in the north (May).
Risings in Leon, Esteli, Matagalpa, and their liberation.
Formation of Provisional government in Costa Rica.
Several Latin American governments break relations with Somoza.
ABC-TV correspondent Bill Stewart murdered by National Guard.
Major street battles in Managua, ending in mass withdrawal to Masaya (June).
All major cities except Managua under FSLN control (by 17 July).
Somoza leaves for Miami, leaving Congress leader Urcuyo in charge of transfer of power.
Urcuyo refuses to hand over power (17 July).
FSLN columns enter Managua (19 July).
The new government formally assumes power (July 20).


Somoza executed by Montoneros in Paraguay (July 17).

The next day, the 17th, is celebrated in today’s Nicaragua as ‘The Day of Joy’. Somoza fled the country, on his way to Miami. He had destroyed almost everything he could not take with him; like those in his immediate circle, he had been sending money out of the country for years. Before he left, Somoza passed the Presidency to the Congressional leader, Urcuyo, whose job was to hand over power, formally, to the Provisional Government. But Urcuyo announced, unexpectedly, his intention of remaining in power until the scheduled 1981 elections.

The announcement killed the last attempts by the US government to exercise some control over the manner of Somoza’s downfall. It was now the Frente Sandinista, undisputed leader of the armed rising, which seized the initiative – and the insurrectionaries began their march on the capital. By the afternoon of July 19th, all vestiges of the former state had gone.

Only six months earlier, the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie believed it was in control of the situation. Mass risings in Matagalpa, Leon and Esteli in September 1978 were followed by massive ‘Clean-Up’ operations by the National Guard which left 6,000 dead. The bourgeois organisations, grouped in a broad opposition front, the FAO, assumed that this signalled defeat for the insurrectionary strategy of the FSLN, and turned to the United States for a negotiated solution. For its part the FSLN retreated to the hills with large numbers of new recruits. It was short of arms – but far from crushed. A Mediation Commission was set up to organise Somoza’s resignation and ensure an ‘orderly transfer of power’. Had Somoza resigned promptly, things might have been very different – but he refused to give up his power. From that moment on, a negotiated solution was no longer possible.

In November, 1978, the FSLN walked out of the FAO, taking with it the trade unions and the Nicaraguan Communist Party (the PSN). In February, these organisations formed the Revolutionary Patriotic Front (FPR) under FSLN leadership. In the same month, the US stopped arms sales to Somoza; two months later, Mexico broke off diplomatic relations.

In March, the Final Offensive began in Esteli. ‘The FSLN’s tactic was to create an indefinite number of operational zones through combinations of strike movements, local uprisings and the activity of its own military units.’ [1] In military terms, this was designed to disperse the forces of the Guard; politically, it represented a coordination of the three areas of Frente activity, each of which had been developed by a different tendency.

The conditions were right. Several thousand combatants moved in from the war fronts, better armed than before. In the cities, the mass movement was also preparing for a final thrust – and the bombing of Esteli did nothing to hold back the preparations.

On June 4th, the Sandinistas issued a call for an insurrectional general strike. The next day, everything stopped; and the cities prepared for the final confrontation with the Guard. On June 10th, Managua rose in battle – it was spontaneous and occurred earlier than planned. By the end of the month it was clear that, until the rest of the country was consolidated in the hands of the insurrection, Managua could not hold out against the savage assault of the Guard. The Frente determined a strategic withdrawal, and 6,000 people (or more) marched through the night the 25 kilometres to Masaya. The vengeance wreaked by Somoza in Managua was terrible; yet Masaya was almost impregnable. Fourteen days later, the final assault on Managua brought the Somoza regime to its end.

The final weeks had been extraordinarily bloody. The Guard had embarked on an orgy of revenge and murder; yet this only swelled the ranks of the insurrection. There was now no turning back. The young, the very young, the old were all involved. The barricades made out of Somoza’s paving stones rose up throughout the city. The contact bombs and home-made weapons would have to be enough – there was nothing left to lose.

By early July, the United States – which had played the usual dual role, cutting arms but voting for emergency aid for Somoza – instructed its Managua ambassador, Lawrence Pezzullo, to stay in his hotel and not present his credentials to Somoza. Meanwhile, its Central American representative, William Bowdler, was in Costa Rica, trying for the last time to ensure a National Guard presence in the Provisional Government. But no-one was speaking to Somoza.

In the end the diplomatic manoeuvres and political discussions had little effect on what happened on those July days. In the eight weeks after Jinotega was taken, it was the masses in insurrection that seized command of the process. It was the people themselves who, step by step, took back the streets.

The roots of revolution

The Somoza state was now overthrown. The ‘orderly transfer of power’, which the bourgeoisie had argued for, had not occurred. Instead, the FSLN had seized state power at the head of a mass insurrectionary movement. As the columns of fighters entered Managua throughout the day, they had behind them an armed people, the embryo of a new army to replace the National Guard – the force on which Somoza’s power had always rested, and whose final destruction guaranteed his downfall.

The basis of a new form of social organisation had been glimpsed in the course of the insurrection; in the Civil Defence Committees, the Popular Militias and the Sandinista Agricultural Communes.

The hegemony of the FSLN in this new Nicaragua was undisputed. The revolution in a narrow sense – the armed overthrow of the state and the abolition of its armed force by popular insurrection – had taken place. The revolution in a broad sense, however – the assumption of power over the whole of society by the working class – faced a series of limitations which derived from the peculiar character of Nicaragua’s historical development. It would be impossible to explain Sandinismo, or the circumstances in which it came to power, without understanding that history.

The economic structure of Nicaragua was to a large extent determined by the end of the last century. Until the 1890s, economic activity was divided between the great cattle ranches of the oligarchy and the small communities engaged in the subsistence production of maize and beans. Coffee was first planted in 1850, but from 1890 onwards its rising price on the world market accelerated Nicaragua’s coffee production. As more land was devoted to the new crop, communal lands were absorbed into the plantations. The peasant population remained as seasonal labour or was driven further into the interior in search of land. The fierce resistance of the indigenous population was crushed. [2] This pattern of dispossession and proletarianisation continued as export agriculture developed, creating a growing seasonal labour force, some of whom were able (barely) to survive for the rest of the year from the produce of their tiny isolated plots of land. [3]

With expanding coffee production, a new bourgeoisie emerged, opposed to the old oligarchy and linked to the world market. Its political philosophy – liberalism – and its advocacy of centralisation, national integration and free trade reflected the aim of centralising control over national resources in support of the expanding new industry, and the search for more beneficial exchange relationships by diversifying markets and sources of capital and manufactures. This was the programme of Zelaya, who was in power between 1893 and 1909. Zelaya succeeded in establishing central control over the national economy and tying it to coffee, and in creating a ‘free’ labour force through dispossession. At the same time, he established relations with European capital. It was this which most sorely provoked the imperialist power of the north – the United States. In the first place, US capital (then in its most aggressive ‘dollar diplomacy’ phase) was unhappy about losing a key area of investment in Central America. Secondly, Nicaragua had then – prior to the construction of the Panama Canal – been singled out as the location for the strategic interoceanic canal. When Zelaya offered the canal contract to a consortium of European companies, US capital rose in protest, and found a sympathetic ear in Secretary of State Philander Knox, who happened to be a director of a company with interests on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast.

Zelaya’s government was overthrown in 1909. American marines landed at Bluefields, on the Atlantic coast, and assumed direct control. By the time the Bryan-Chamorro Pact was signed in 1912, the US had established complete control over Nicaragua, not only appointing presidents, but also imposing a plan for economic ‘stabilisation’ to be overseen by a mixed US-Nicaraguan Commission. The real meaning of the Plan emerged clearly when, in exchange for a short-term loan of $100,000, American banks assumed direct control of the Customs, the railways, the National Bank and the collection of taxes. [4] Zelaya’s plan for the development of an autonomous national state capable of renegotiating the terms of its unequal insertion into the world economy, lay in ruins.

Between 1909 and 1926, the liberal bourgeoisie supported a number of armed risings against the regime, bids for power where no electoral means existed. Their banners were nationalism and development; but the weakness of the bourgeoisie, its incapacity to accumulate, ensured that the slogan of national development was never more than words: ‘The role that might have corresponded to the incipient national industry, was occupied at a very early stage by external suppliers, thus deepening the subordination of the Nicaraguan economy in its relations with the centres that had hegemony over world trade.’ [5]

The last great Liberal rising under Moncada in 1926, proved to be just another bid for a share of power, and ended in an agreement between liberals, conservatives and the US which took Moncada to the Presidency. This time, however, there was a difference. One of the liberal generals, Augusto Cesar Sandino, refused to lay down his arms. For the next seven years, he led a struggle against US intervention that again took up the call for independent national development, though this time in a more radical form, and carried much further the battle against imperialism.

Sandino, born in the village of Niquinohomo in 1895, was vilified and dismissed as a bandit and madman for forty years after his death. Yet in the countryside, he was remembered; today it is his name, and the outline of his famous stetson hat, that graces almost every wall in Nicaragua. Sandino’s ‘crazy little army’ was often reduced, in the course of its struggle, to a handful of starving people; yet he was known in the rest of the world, and his portrait hung behind the platform at the Brussels Anti-Imperialist Congress of 1928. [6]

Sandino’s was a peasant army, though his own ideas were framed by liberalism:

We must expel completely from our homeland all North American citizens and capital, who represent an imminent danger for the nation that innocently received them into its midst. We must develop our own industry and our own trade ...

Our project is based on the right of peoples to express their opinion ... on the liberty and independence of our republics ... and on the wonderful natural privileges with which God has endowed these countries and which have been the cause of the domination exercised over us. [7]

The 1927 Political Manifesto assigns the struggle to the oppressed; its political perspective is nationalist, its economic idea rooted in national development. [8] It was in no sense an anti-capitalist programme (Sandino wanted a consortium of Latin American capital to take charge of the canal project), and its politics seem to be derived mainly from the petit-bourgeois anti-imperialism of the Peruvian APRA party. The programme identified imperialism as the main obstacle to development, and foresaw a new form of agriculture-based development, organised through a cooperative community of small landowners, self-sufficient in food, and growing towards a healthy, Latin American agrarian capitalism. There is nothing in his writings to suggest a vision of industrial growth, though in this Sandino did no more than reflect the reality of a Nicaragua with no industrial sector outside the isolated US-owned mines, no industrial proletariat except the semi-enslaved Indian miners and lumber workers in the US enclaves of the Atlantic coast [9], and a stagnant agro-export economy serviced by a semi-proletarian labour force.

It was the un-diversified nature of that economy that explained why the world recession at the end of the twenties hit Nicaragua early and hard. Its victims swelled Sandino’s army. In the 1920s, 90% of the population were hungry, 50% of Nicaragua’s children died before they were nine, and 75% of the people had no education at all. [10]

As the struggle developed, and Sandino understood that ‘only the workers and the peasants will take the struggle through to its ultimate consequences’, Sandino’s manifestos began to move in the direction of an alternative form of socio-economic organisation – the peasant cooperative within a liberated area, like the community of Wiwili, formed in the course of the war.

The radicalisation of the military struggle, the shift from regular to guerrilla warfare, took Sandino closer to a concept of ‘people’s war’ based on the peasantry. The new tactic was in part dictated by the conduct of the war itself; the Marines took savage measures of reprisal against the Sandino’s base of support – air raids (on the town of Ocotal in 1927) [11], terror, the selective murder of civilians and the removal of whole communities to ‘strategic hamlets’. As a military tactician, Sandino was very able; his conduct of the war, after the first costly attempts at trench warfare, turned on an extremely mobile form of guerrilla war based on ambush and escape – a tactic which assumed a close identification between army and peasants, and guaranteed an intimate knowledge of the terrain and the ability of the guerrillas to fade back into the rural population.

At the political level, Sandino’s vision was limited by the objective reality. His irritable dismissal of Farabundo Marti, once his secretary and later leader of the Communist Party of El Salvador and organiser of the 1932 peasant insurrection there suggested Sandino’s resistance to socialist politics. [12] Yet in practice, he also understood that the servile bourgeoisie of Nicaragua was too weak to carry such a project forward and that the social force for achieving the programme would have the peasantry at its core – they alone would do the fighting.

Humberto Ortega argues that Sandino’s movement was class-based, and that it had working-class demands. [13] While the class composition of the guerrilla army was clear, the alliance that was its political basis centred on the expulsion of the Americans. When that was achieved (on February 1st, 1933), Sandino’s petit-bourgeois support disappeared, and Sandino himself withdrew to Wiwili, taking a small military force with him to protect the community.

Ortega describes this withdrawal as being rather like Mao’s Long March – as a tactic of accumulation of forces. There is nothing in Sandino’s writings to suggest this – in any event, we shall never know. A year later, the new head of the National Guard, Anastasio Somoza’s hired thugs murdered the General of Free Men in the street. In the next two days, Wiwili was destroyed and its inhabitants shot to pieces.

With Sandino’s death, the project for national development remained untried. And a weak bourgeoisie finally preferred a consolidation of the agro-export model under Somoza to the structural changes Sandino had argued for.

The Somoza dynasty

Anastasio Somoza made his first profits from forging dollar bills and selling used cars in the United States. His knowledge of English got him a job as interpreter for the occupying Marines. By 1933, the US commander had named him head of the National Guard – and it was this control over the armed force of the state that enabled him to seize power after the US withdrawal and found a dynasty that would last for more than forty years.

Somoza’s role was to consolidate the agro-export model. As coffee prices fell, the landowners simply annexed more land and raised the quantity produced. The production of subsistence crops suffered as more peasants were dispossessed [14], but Somoza’s strong state was there to stifle any resistance to the process. He exacted a high price for his trouble; the bourgeoisie was obliged to pay new taxes direct to Somoza, state employees had to make a 5% contribution from their salary to finance Somoza’s new political party, and foreign companies paid direct tributes in exchange for the right to operate without interference in their Atlantic coast enclaves. These contributions, together with German property expropriated during the Second World War, converted Somoza into the biggest private landowner in Nicaragua. By 1944, he owned 51 cattle ranches, 46 coffee estates, 8 sugar plantations, as well as a personal fortune of over $60m – the fruit of wartime profiteering. [15]

The interrelationship with the US economy had deepened during the war, as Nicaragua became almost exclusively a supplier of raw materials for it. But the period brought protests from the bourgeoisie, which felt it was paying too dearly for Somoza’s protection. In 1944, the announcement that Somoza would be standing for election again in 1947 provoked mass student protests and the formation of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI). [16] In the same year the PSN (Nicaraguan Communist Party) was formed – at a meeting in support of Somoza. [17] And the same year had seen strikes among rubber workers, and by bus drivers and textile workers in Leon and Managua. [18] If the PSN ever had ambitions to build on working-class activity, Somoza swept the ground from under their feet. On May 1st, 1945, a new Labour Code was passed, guaranteeing wages, social services etc. It was, of course, never implemented. Somoza’s price was social peace, and it was a price the PSN accepted on the basis of the USSR’s call for the formation of broad antifascist alliances, a policy which had already led to the voluntary dissolution of some CPs and the inclusion of others in bourgeois governments (as in Cuba). When the ‘antifascist’ Somoza turned against his erstwhile ally, the PSN could offer no resistance to the repression unleashed after 1947.

By 1950, the bourgeoisie was reconciled with Somoza. A new period of agro-export expansion began, based principally on the growth in cotton production (from 379 tons exported in 1949 to 43,791 in 1955; by 1960, cotton represented 23% of total exports). [19] For the bourgeoisie, the first consideration was a harmonious process of expansion – even though this meant a recognition that the Somoza state was an essential component of their relationship with imperialism and the world market. [20]

In this period, opposition was limited to the tiny PLI, whose youth section was a crucible for many of those who would later form the Frente Sandinista. It produced, too, the student-poet Rigoberto Lopez Perez, who in 1956 assassinated Somoza at a banquet. In the months of repression that followed, it became clear that it was not to be the ‘beginning of the end’ that Rigoberto had predicted; for Somoza’s two sons, Luis (who became President in 1957) and Anastasio (head of the National Guard) were well-trained to maintain the dynasty. [21]

Under Luis Somoza, the repression of the rural population continued, but there was a relative liberalisation in the urban areas-permitted by the general agreement reached between Somoza and the bourgeoisie after 1950. The pact was based on a clear definition of territories, of zones of operation. Thus Somoza could become a pillar of the gradualist, developmentalist strategies represented by the Alliance for Progress, set up by the United States after 1959 to isolate the Cuban Revolution and form a solid military and political alliance to maintain that isolation. (The Bay of Pigs invasion, in 1961, for example, was launched from Nicaragua.) As part of the same ‘reformist’ policy, Luis Somoza even ceded power to a civilian, Rene Schick, between 1963 and 1967. Under Schick, the level of political opposition rose, and union organisation, although tiny, drew in increasing numbers as industry expanded under the impact of the Central American Common Market. Direct US investment increased [22], the infrastructure was expanded [23] and urban assembly and consumer industries developed. The financial bourgeoisie greatly extended its operations, forming two powerful new financial-industrial groups – BANIC and BANAMERICA [24] – with the tacit approval of Somoza. Yet in the countryside, social relations were characterised by poverty, dispossession, hunger and deepening exploitation. This was the model of reform with repression, of a deepening contradiction between country and city. The model lasted until 1967.

As its economic power grew, the conservative opposition again prepared a challenge for political power, based on an active student movement and a growing trade union organisation, linked through the first bourgeois political front, the ONU. Its bid for control of the state ended in the mass demonstration of January 22nd, 1967, which was brutally repressed, leaving 400 dead. The demonstration marked a new phase, as Anastasio Somoza assumed direct control after the death of his brother. Once again, the bourgeoisie entered a pact with the dynasty. For the next five years, the Somozas embarked on a new period of accumulation – but they shared its fruits with what Wheelock calls this ‘consular bourgeoisie’, which had fought only for power within the structure, but had never challenged the structure itself.

By the end of the decade, US investors began to withdraw from Central America and turn their capital towards armaments or to investments in the developed world. [25] Throughout Latin America, the contradiction at the heart of the Alliance for Progress was beginning to be revealed. [26] Somoza II directed his investments into new fields; he turned to the ‘sunbelt’ financiers like Howard Hughes and Robert Vesco, and to the Cuban exiles of Miami, for joint ventures into the more immediately rewarding fields of construction, gambling, drugs and prostitution.

On December 29th, 1972, the centre of Managua was destroyed by a huge earthquake. Between 10,000 and 20,000 died in the ruins, and 75% of housing and 90% of commerce were destroyed. The UN estimated the damage at $772m. An international appeal was launched, and this aid provided the basis for the third and most speculative period of Somocista accumulation. The aid was earmarked for immediate relief and reconstruction. The centre of Managua today, with its gaping torn buildings and vast empty spaces still lumpy with rubble, are eloquent testimony to the mockery Somoza made of the relief programme. While most of Managua’s shops were destroyed, members of the National Guard set up makeshift stalls in the streets selling the medicines, clothes and food sent by international organisations. The cash was appropriated by Somoza himself and invested in a series of speculative projects – mainly construction. It was not public housing he built, of course, but shopping centres and middle-class residential areas, or new roads surfaced with the curious hexagonal road tiles made exclusively in one of Somoza’s factories. For the National Guard, who were the basis of Somoza’s power and whose loyalty was maintained by a mix of corruption and internal terror [27], the earthquake provided an unparalleled opportunity for pillage and profit. For a week or so, it was 600 American troops who maintained ‘law and order’, while the Guard ransacked Managua.

The two years that followed were a period of economic boom, fuelled by the construction industry. They were also years of drought, bringing hunger to the rural population and drawing waves of migrants to the slum barrios of Managua. Trade union activity was unprecedented; in 1973, building workers launched a major strike for a 10% wage rise and against Somoza’s attempt to raise the working week from 48 to 60 hours. Strikes by workers in health and the textile industry followed. The bourgeoisie, too, took to the streets in protest against Somoza’s monopolisation of the post-earthquake bonanza.

Despite this ‘false boom’, the seventies were a period of economic recession. This intensified the struggle between Somoza and a bourgeoisie who looked on as the shrinking product of the agro-export model was increasingly redistributed towards Somoza. Yet the bourgeoisie had no political alternative to offer; as the bourgeois opposition grew, and formed its new front organisation, UDEL, its perspectives remained fundamentally electoral. The political agitation and open criticism of Somoza, however, were taken up by other sectors. The three trade union federations, as well as the PSN, joined UDEL. The rural workers, the peasants and the urban poor – whose conditions of life were deteriorating rapidly – had no political expression; yet it was they who had known the full force of Somoza’s repression – the arbitrary dispossession by landowners with the support of the Guard, extortion by the network of spies and informers set up by Somoza, arbitrary arrests and torture in the urban barrios. And it was their bitterness and anger that exploded in the Indian community of Monimbo, in February 1978. These were the sectors that the FSLN saw as the motor of the armed struggle against Somocismo.

Resistance to Somocismo

Sandino’s murder in 1934 brought the possibility of resistance to an effective end, though some of his aides, like Pedro Altamirano, tried to sustain the struggle for a short time. The renewed mass activity of 1944–47 proved short-lived, as the re-imposition of the state of siege in 1947 closed all doors to open political opposition. A frustrated conservative opposition turned to arms – not in an attempt to develop the armed struggle as such, but rather in an attempt to identify dissident element within the National Guard and challenge Somoza from within. It was the classic model of the ‘palace coup’. [28] Repression also followed the assassination of the first Somoza in 1956. Among those arrested and tortured was Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, later editor of La Prensa. [29]

The economic crisis of the late fifties that provided the conditions for renewed mass activity. [30] To worsening conditions in the countryside were added new confrontations in the cities. The number of trade unions rose from 5 to 18 in 1958 alone, and the student movement, influenced by the Cuban Revolution, became increasingly active. Yet the movement had no unified political direction. The Conservative Party had once again reached an agreement with Somoza; and the PLI, though it produced many of the student leaders, was unable to provide that leadership. Nor was there any revolutionary organisation capable of filling the vacuum. [31] There had been virtually no urban working class in Nicaragua until the late fifties, and the PSN had been content to build a narrow base among small groups of workers that did exist, and to ignore the agricultural proletariat. Furthermore, the PSN’s early compromises with Somoza, and its determination to operate within a legal framework, left it wide open to repression on the one hand, and gained it a collaborationist reputation on the other. Socialist politics, therefore, were to an extent discredited; the vacuum was filled by a mixture of liberalism and vague references to Sandino. In 1956, a small group of students started a Marxist study circle at the University of Leon – but it was the Cuban interpretation of revolutionary practice to which they turned.

The Frente de Liberacion Nacional itself, was founded in Honduras, in 1961, by Carlos Fonseca, Tomas Borge and Silvio Mayorga. Its roots were in the student movement, and its theory came from Cuba. [32] In 1963, the word Sandinista was added – and the organisation became the Sandinista Front, the FSLN. It was more than a change of name: Fonseca had argued from the outset for a politics derived from Sandino – guerrilla war based in the peasantry. In this context, mass work meant preparation of a support network for the armed revolutionaries, and a strong rejection of the kind of public activity – demonstrations, public protests etc. – that were identified with the PSN. For a short time, Fonseca and the others had held out some hope that the line of the PSN could be changed – the formation of the FSLN buried that idea. [33]

The Frente’s first guerrilla action, at Rio Coco and Bocay in 1963, proved a costly failure. Its defeat coincided with a period of liberalisation under Schick which seemed, albeit briefly, to vindicate the legalist line. As Fonseca put it:

We hesitated about presenting a clear Marxist-Leninist ideology ... the result, in part, of the attitude of the traditional Marxist-Leninist sector in the popular struggle which, in practice, had openly participated in the manoeuvres of the Somocista clique. [34]

For the next two years, the FSLN worked in the student movement and through a broad electoral organisation called Republican Mobilisation. The strategy of ‘accumulating forces for the guerrilla’ was put into abeyance. In the countryside, the Sandinista organiser Rigoberto Cruz did important work in forming some of the first peasant organisations. Many of the new cadres of the FSLN came from these two sectors.

Fonseca, meanwhile, was in Cuba. He returned in 1966, convinced of the correctness of a guerrilla strategy, and began to prepare a new foco in Pancasan. At the same time, the liberalisation period ended with the massacre of January 22nd, 1967. By August, the Pancasan guerrilla, too, was destroyed. It was true that the group had included a number of peasants, and that the Frente had drawn new recruits from its mass work in the previous three years. Yet it was equally true that mass work was still seen to imply the mobilisation of peasant support, rather than its direct organised participation in the guerrilla. It was the revolutionaries, not the masses, who were regarded as the subjects of history. And the next foco, at Zinica in 1969, was founded on the same basis. Henry Ruiz, ‘Modesto’, summed up these attitudes later when he said, ‘A worker who is transferred to the mountains becomes a far greater danger to the Somocista regime than an economic strike carried out by hundreds of workers’. [35]

As the seventies began, the FSLN was therefore still a tiny organisation. It had little or no role in the series of workers’ struggles of 1970–74. Its strategy at the time was one of the ‘silent accumulation of forces’, which again took the Frente into the cities in search of new cadre; it now worked in a clandestine way. The strategy had several pivots. First, the FSLN was active (though not overtly) in the student mobilisations of the period, directing them towards campaigns for the release of Sandinista political prisoners, many of whom were suffering terrible tortures in Somoza’s jails. [36] Secondly, there was peasant work in its turn conducted under the cover of the activities of the liberation church, which had begun to move in the direction of radical social action after the Medellin Conference. The majority of today’s FSLN National Directorate, for example, came into politics through radical Christian groups. [37]

The general leadership of the movement at this time was in the hands of the bourgeois opposition – though the building strike was led by the PSN, which was also a member. In 1974, that opposition had come together with the trade unions and the PSN to form a new opposition front, the UDEL. Clearly, if it was to justify its claim to the political leadership of the mass movement, the FSLN would have to respond. So, on December 27th, 1974, the FSLN invaded the house of a prominent Somoza supporter, Chema Castillo, during a Christmas party, and held the guests under arms. The result of the action was the freeing of 18 Sandinista prisoners, the broadcasting of two FSLN communiqués, half a million dollars and safe passage for the prisoners and the commando. [38]

There followed thirty-three months of savage repression of the peasantry, and the unrelenting persecution of the FSLN in both the city and the mountains, as Somoza had declared a state of siege after the Christmas party raid. The FSLN was thus unable to follow up or build upon the attack on the Castillo house. [39]

The debate in the FSLN

At this point a fierce debate arose within the FSLN. The foco theory had been abandoned after Zinica, and the argument was between the advocates of a prolonged people’s war strategy, based on a slow preparation of the rural population for prolonged war (the GPP group), and a ‘Proletarian’ Tendency (TP), which argued that the central task was to organise among the working class, in both country and city, and to build a revolutionary party. While the GPP still identified with the Sandinista orthodoxy defined by Carlos Fonseca, the TP laid stress on the growth of the working class through the sixties and seventies, and on its increasing combativity. Jaime Wheelock, one of the TP leaders, pointed out in his Imperialismo y dictadura that despite the predominance of Somoza, there did exist a clearly defined bourgeoisie in Nicaragua. Thus Sandinismo should be extended, and a clear perception of anti-capitalist, class struggle added to its anti-imperialist content. The internal rift was a bitter one, and aggravated by the difficulties of communication between the two groups. When Fonseca returned to Nicaragua in 1976, it was in order to maintain a dialogue; his death in action soon afterwards made the split deeper.

For the next year and a half the groups worked in virtual isolation from one another. Yet there seemed to be a basic agreement that the overthrow of Somoza would require a long period of preparation and organisation – and that when the revolution did occur, it would mark the beginning of a transition to socialism. [40] In 1976, however, a third tendency emerged – the Terceristas, or Insurrectionists. They argued that an alliance built on a more limited anti-Somocista base could bring about the fall of Somoza sooner than expected. The formation of such an alliance, both nationally and internationally, combined with spectacular commando-type actions, would – they believed – precipitate the crisis of Somocismo. Though it is hard to describe people engaged in armed struggle as social-democrats, as Henri Weber points out, it is true that the Terceristas were fundamentally concerned with exploiting divisions within the bourgeoisie (particularly in view of the changing line of the US government), whose complement would be a mass strike or insurrection, rather than with long-term organisational work. In this sense, they could be described as Castroist. [41] By mid-1977, the Terceristas had clearly captured the leadership of the FSLN.

The Terceristas undoubtedly set aside the question of organising workers and peasants for their own liberation – which the GPP and the Proletarian Tendency had at least put on the agenda. Yet none of the three tendencies discussed the question of socialism, or saw the relationship between the construction of a revolutionary party rooted in the working class and the nature of state power after a revolutionary overthrow of the Somoza state. The transition to socialism was mentioned in the documents – but the role of the working class as the protagonist of that transition was not specifically discussed. There was no concept of workers’ power, no sense of what a workers’ state looks like, no preparation of a material base for such a state (through the prioritisation of support for the workers’ own struggles). In part, the lack of such discussion was the fruit of the particular history of the FSLN, of its emergence and growth outside the working-class movement, tiny though it was. The result was that, when the mass upsurge of 1978 did occur, and when the overthrow of Somoza ensued in July 1979, there was no political current present within the FSLN arguing for workers’ power, for the struggle for socialism, or for the centrality of the working class in that process. The unification of the tendencies in March 1979 represented, in one sense, the pressure of the external movement on the FSLN; on the other hand, it also reflected the failure to develop an alternative leadership informed with class politics. It is in this sense that the question of the revolutionary party – the expression of that alternative leadership – becomes critically important, and its absence from internal political debate within the FSLN was a key element in post-revolutionary developments.

They were right, nevertheless, to argue that the situation was explosive. Between 1960 and 1977, the rural population had fallen from 60% to 44% of the total. Those who had left the country were mainly resident in the urban barrios, devoid of even the most elementary provision. By 1977, while 5% of the population enjoyed an average per capita income of $5,409 [42], the majority of the people had an average annual income of $286. The period after the false boom of 1972–4 was marked by factory closures, massive lay-offs and rising unemployment. 60% of the rural population was literally hungry, and 70% illiterate. Yet in 1978, Somoza closed the schools in order to save money for the purchase of arms!

By September 1977, Carter’s human rights policy led to the suspension of arms sales, after the Senate had heard the report of Fernando Cardenal, a Jesuit priest, on the appalling human rights situation in Nicaragua. [43] In response, Somoza lifted the state of siege in October – and an explosion of popular protest immediately followed. The October mobilisations were led by UDEL, who saw them as a form of pressure designed to force the US to intervene and depose Somoza. At the same time, however, the Terceristas launched a series of attacks on National Guard barracks at San Carlos, Ocotal and Masaya. While not particularly successful, and not generating any immediate mass response, they did establish the military capacity of the Frente. At the political level, the Terceristas had brought together a number of influential supporters in the Group of Twelve (a group of businessmen, intellectuals and priests supporting the FSLN), who followed up the military actions with a political declaration arguing that the Frente was now a political force that could not be excluded from any political solution to the crisis of Somocismo. The FSLN undoubtedly enjoyed a moral authority based on its long and heroic history of struggle; yet it was still unconnected with an organised mass base.

Civil War

In January 1978, the situation changed dramatically. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, editor of La Prensa and leader of UDEL, was murdered by Somoza. 120,000 people marched at his funeral, and UDEL called a national ‘bosses’ strike’ for January 23rd. The political objective was still an orderly removal of Somoza with US backing. At the beginning of February, however, the bourgeoisie lost the power to stem the flow of events. The initiative passed to the community of Monimbo, on the outskirts of the city of Masaya. It was an explosion of accumulated anger and resentment against a repressive state that occurred in Monimbo. For a week they held off a full scale National Guard assault. And though the TP was working in the area, the leadership of the rising was exclusively local. [44]

Although the Monimbo rising was finally crushed, and a terrible vengeance wreaked by Somoza, it was clear that it had detonated what would be the definitive military confrontation in the urban barrios. The Terceristas, who lost one of their main leaders in the battle, dissolved their rural cadres into the cities; the GPP moved its bases closer to the populated areas, and the Proletarian Tendency turned to the military and political organisation of the urban masses. Despite the repression, the mass movement was now growing at all levels. The Agricultural Workers Union was formed by Sandinista peasants in early 1978, and the Civil Defence Committees emerged as new forms of mass self-organisation in the war zone. And while the FSLN did not lead or organise all these movements, it was their slogans that appeared on the walls.

From now on, the level of mass activity hardly abated. When the Group of Twelve returned to Managua in July 1978 in defiance of Somoza’s express prohibition, they were greeted by mass demonstrations. Their return was timed to coincide with the formation of a new bourgeois front, the FAO, led by Alfonso Robelo. It was clear, though that the Frente representatives had come to lead the FAO, or to divide it.

The insurrections of September further enhanced the authority of the FSLN. They began in August, in Matagalpa, in the wake of the spectacular assault on the National Palace on August 28th [45], when the FSLN had kidnapped the entire Congress and released them only in exchange for 59 Sandinista prisoners and the publication of two political statements. Yet the Matagalpa rising was not led by the Frente – it was fundamentally spontaneous. As the risings spread, the FSLN had no choice but to assume the leadership [46] – or lose the opportunity forever. Though it was ill-prepared for an armed struggle on that scale, the FSLN did take the leadership of the risings of Leon and Esteli, that followed Matagalpa. When the risings ended, the FSLN withdrew into the mountains, with its authority reinforced and its ranks swollen with new recruits from among the street fighters.

The Guard moved in, arresting anyone who could have handled a weapon, and everyone whose youth made them potential recruits for the Frente. The violence was terrible, yet it did not seem to daunt a population that had already known so much brutality and death. The FAO, however, interpreted the moment as the end of mass activity, and confidently launched a new initiative calling for US mediation. Talks continued until January 1979. The FSLN refused to participate in any form of ‘Somocismo without Somoza’, and in January Somoza himself broke off all further negotiations.

It was now clear that victory would mean insurrection, the overthrow of the Somoza state, and the abolition of the National Guard. That was the demand coming from a mass movement that could see the cracks appearing in the edifice of the state and the prospects of its own power. And the FSLN was the only political organisation capable of interpreting and directing that demand. In November the group of Twelve walked out of the FAO together with the trade unions and the PSN; all then joined the FSLN-led United People’s Movement (MPU). In February, this became the Popular Revolutionary Front under clear Sandinista leadership, and with a perspective of taking power. The new alliance was broad in its social character, but united around its opposition to Somoza. Somoza’s refusal to yield his own power in order to save the state, had set the terms of the next and final phase of the struggle.

Only the FSLN was committed to the armed overthrow of Somoza. The unification of the tendencies enabled it to take military leadership of the mass movement, which was, in a confused way, posing the question of power, Yet, under Tercerista dominance, the FSLN channelled that feeling towards the overthrow of Somoza only. Beyond that, no section of the Sandinistas could offer a programme for the assumption of power by that mass movement itself in a post-Somocista Nicaragua.

The revolutionaries in power

On July 20th the new, revolutionary Nicaragua was free of Somoza, who in one incarnation or another had dominated Nicaragua for 45 years. But the process of removing him had been costly. Four of Nicaragua’s seven cities lay in ruins – Leon, Esteli, Matagalpa and Masaya, where only the twisted sign of the Masaya cinema remained amid the devastated streets surrounding the National Guard barracks.

Yet the atmosphere was exhilarating and euphoric. The urban barrios celebrated what they quite rightly saw as the exercise of their collective power [47], tearing down with their bare hands the ‘statue of Somoza outside the Somoza stadium’ which, in the words of the priest-poet Ernesto Cardenal [48], had been put there precisely because it offended the people. The bourgeoisie, meanwhile, was trying the new revolutionary language for size, while the American administration adopted a benevolent, avuncular face and promised assistance to the new regime.

The apparent acquiescence of Carter was curious; after all, every sector of Nicaraguan society agreed that Somoza’s power derived from his defence of imperialist interests. As the Americans saw it, the new regime was an alliance of forces in which the bourgeoisie was not only represented, but had also salvaged some real influence. His aim was ‘the evolution of a pluralistic society with a mixed economy, not hostile to the United States’. [49] On the face of it, the assessment was correct, for the assumption was that Nicaragua’s desperate need for external aid would make it impossible for the new government to sever the imperialist tie, and that such aid – coming mainly from the US and Western Europe – would carry implicit restraints on the further radicalisation of the process.

Ironically, the changing US line had contributed to Somoza’s overthrow. From 1977 onwards, the Carter administration adopted a ‘human rights’ policy; its aim was to create a new political space in which bourgeois opposition movements could assume power without resorting to the more radical solutions that were being advocated elsewhere in Central America. Military rule had closed the door to ‘moderate’ political alternatives, and had often forced bourgeois opposition groups into alliances with revolutionary organisations. If the repressive face of these regimes could be changed, then – it was assumed – the relationship between moderates and revolutionaries could be severed. [50]

Two factors ensured the failure of Carter’s policy – and Nicaragua illustrated both. First, the economic recession of the late seventies required a strong state that could control growing mass discontent in the face of increasing inflation and rising unemployment. Any bourgeois alternative had to rest on a promise of economic growth – yet the world economy as a whole was in process of stagnation. Secondly, the military governors of Latin America proved to be less than puppets of the US. Their long period of economic and political power had given them an independent base of strength within the system, as well as a network of relationships with similar states. (The experience provided an important corrective to those arguments which maintained that the United States was directly responsible for everything that happens on its periphery, ignoring the independent class interests within each state.) Thus, when the US stopped arms sales to Guatemala and Nicaragua, both simply turned to other suppliers – mainly Israel and South Africa [51] – and cut back on their limited social programmes to pay for them. It was largely Somoza’s refusal to give up personal power in order to preserve the state that ensured the failure of the bourgeois alternative – and created the conditions for the destruction of the state.

The economic inheritance from Somoza was a grim prospect. Only $3.5m was left in the National Bank; production in agriculture had fallen by more than 25% (and much more in the food-producing sector) and industrial activity had virtually ceased through June and July. What factories Somoza had not bombed were empty of stocks and in many cases badly damaged. Private sector investment had been negative in both 1978 and 1979.

Food, too, was a pressing problem. There was little meat, as immature cattle had been killed and whole herds smuggled across the frontier in the final weeks. There were shortages of other food – pork, chicken and eggs. Many of the urban barrios, where the final fighting had been fiercest, had been virtually dismembered by the Guard; and all this was merely additional to the already drastic state of material and social deprivation in which most of the people had lived under Somoza. Unemployment was around 38%, illiteracy over 50%; there was real hunger [52], and housing and sanitary conditions were appalling. [53]

The immediate task was economic reactivation. While it was hoped to return quickly to pre-war production levels, immediate and large-scale injections of foreign aid were required to answer the urgent needs of the people. The composition of the new Government of National Reconstruction expressed the compromise on which the possibility of economic reconstruction was founded. For while it was accepted that the property of Somoza and his allies would be expropriated, it was also clear that foreign aid was conditional on there being no further encroachment on the private sector. For the same reasons, economic reactivation would depend on the willingness of the bourgeoisie to participate. The price of that collaboration was ‘political pluralism’.

On the other hand, the FSLN had led an armed overthrow of the state, and within a month moved to the establishment of a new army which was entirely under its control. It had the support of a population that had seized power, and identified its victory with FSLN leadership – a leadership that made it clear from the outset that pluralism would not mean the restoration of the private bourgeoisie to power. In fact, the FLSN employed the concept of pluralism in two different ways; on the one hand, a sharing of power with the bourgeoisie, and a willingness to abide by the electoral rules; on the other, references to ‘popular power’ which argued that democracy was not about parliament but about grass-roots control of the political and economic process. [54] Yet the class nature of that power was left deliberately ambiguous and the issue of real control over the process by the workers and peasants unresolved.

Mass involvement in the overthrow of Somoza had pointed to the potential for developing a mass, revolutionary organisation – but only the potential. It was not an ideology of workers’ power, nor a revolutionary party setting out to build the organs of such power (workers’ councils etc.) that had unified and led that movement. The only stated objective of the insurrection was the overthrow of Somoza. That much was achieved. The manner in which he was overthrown provided the opportunity for posing the issue of socialism – had the conscious leadership of the mass movement posed the question in that way. Instead, the central issue posed by the Sandinistas was the problem of accumulation and national development – and the unity of the ‘patriotic classes’ against the traitors.

The base of the new economy were the expropriated properties of Somoza. When the total was known, 20% of agriculture, 25% of manufacturing and 95% of mining had passed into state ownership; this represented some 40% of GDP and around 22% of the productive capacity of the economy. Further, the nationalisation of banking and insurance, and the establishment of state control over imports and exports, gave the government the capacity to control finance and credit. That, however, was to be the limit of state ownership; in November 1979, the expropriation decree was withdrawn in order to stop further land takeovers and factory occupations.

The new economy, therefore, was a mixed economy. Its fundamental laws of motion would be those of capitalism – accumulation, the creation of surplus value, and subjection to the laws of the market. As the 1980 Plan made clear, the strategy behind the new economy was the development of the agro-export economy and the diversification of dependency. ‘The Plan was designed to revitalise capitalism and to set up an important area of State ownership and State production.’ [55] There is a central ambiguity in Sandinista economics – and it is one that recurs at every other level of political debate. According to Jaime Wheelock, for example, ‘there is no need to control production. In reality what we are expropriating are the surpluses’. [56]

It was true that the new structures would allow the state both to appropriate a considerable part of the surplus, and to control the direction of investment through credit, subsidies etc. Yet the bulk of production remained in the hands of the private sector, a private sector that had effectively suspended investment in the previous two years and which would continue to be unwilling to invest without guarantees of profit. The production of the surplus still depended on that sector. The withdrawal of the expropriation decree was one such guarantee, as were the extremely low interest rate credits granted by government. The priority was accumulation of capital – yet much of that would be private accumulation in the context of a capitalist world market.

The Sandinistas argue [57] that the mixed economy has a different character here. Rather than control the functions of capitalism, it controlled the surpluses produced in the economy. It was true that the old bourgeoisie no longer held state power; yet its existence as a class was guaranteed by the continuing existence of private enterprise. The immediate necessity was to generate surplus value in the economy, and social relations would have to be structured in order to realise that surplus. For the development of the productive forces still required the exploitation of labour. Although a greater proportion of profits would now pass to the state, those profits would still represent an accumulated labour power which would not be redistributed through the society.

It was the task of accumulation that determined the character of the new economy. In Wheelock’s view, the mixed economy guaranteed a continuing collaboration of private and state capital. Yet a condition of that relationship was the maintenance of private investment under state direction. Since the revolution, private investors (with one or two exceptions, like the sugar industry’s dominant sector run by the Pellas family) have been reluctant to raise the level of investment. If, as seems likely, the private owners of capital continue to show the same reluctance, the state will almost certainly assume greater control and, eventually, direct ownership. Yet it will act under the same imperatives, and realise the same tasks of capital accumulation according to the same laws. The latter development could take place under the banner of socialism. Genuine socialism, however, lies outside the parameters of the economic alternatives as they are presently argued – for it implies the conscious direction, by a working class exercising power directly, over production. Without a conscious nucleus of revolutionaries arguing and organising for workers’ power, however, that alternative was not even present within the debate, among any section of the Sandinistas.

The ambivalence was clear in the 1980 and 1981 Plans, whose basic planks were: production, austerity, national defence, self-sufficiency and a guaranteed basic living standard. Production was the first priority; the banners and posters proclaim ‘we are the citizens of struggle, in defence and in production’. The agro-export model of development recognised the historical insertion of the Nicaraguan economy into the world market. Nicaragua would continue to be an exporter of agricultural products, and would build its future industrial base on the elaboration and processing of those products. In this sense, the mixed economy simply reflected the unchanged reality of Nicaragua’s existence within a world economy dominated by the laws of the market. The other part of the original programme – the diversification of dependency – set out to sever the exclusive reliance on the US [58] and to permit Nicaragua to seek the best market conditions for its products. Its ability to do both, however, depended on both economic and political conditions. Accumulation remained the central priority. In essence, the Sandinista government faced the task of independent national development which the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie had been unable to carry through. And such a perspective required state intervention in the process of accumulation, and a general reduction in the costs of production – including labour – by reducing imports, the debt burden, inflation and the costs of reproduction of labour. The latter was to be achieved by lowering the general standard of living while still guaranteeing a social minimum, i.e. by attacking luxury or unnecessary consumption.

It was central to such a strategy to raise the productivity of labour and to win acceptance for a general policy of austerity. The working class, objectively speaking, were being asked to bear the costs of accumulation. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, while excluded from political power, were given ample encouragement to produce. In the short run, however, the predominant nationalism of Sandinista politics could sustain the alliance of workers and ‘patriotic bourgeoisie’ against imperialism – and present the need for accumulation as part of the task of national defence and the guarantee of economic development.

The FSLN paid homage, in its internal political documents, to the class struggle, and promised a future transition to socialism. Yet the future promise was combined with a series of restraints on the development of independent class organisation (i.e. prohibitions on the right to strike). The postponement of class struggle to a future stage – after economic development had been achieved – posed the objective contradiction clearly. Though the state claimed to represent the working class, its strategy of collaboration with the bourgeoisie demanded the control and discipline of labour. The consolidation of the national state was clearly posed as the substitute for the construction of workers’ power. State regulation of production was therefore coupled with limits on consumption.

A first priority was to provide the social services that Somoza had neglected. For the first time, a system of universal education and a national health service were established, while new housing, drainage and a water scheme laid down the infrastructure for development. Food and transport were subsidised. At the same time, this ‘social wage’ was counterposed to increases in money wages which, it was argued, would simply fuel inflation.

This argument met more acceptance in the countryside and among the urban poor than among the urban workers, whose organisation and traditions had brought some material benefits even under Somoza. The policy was aimed at socialising benefits, and above all at bringing the most immediate advantage to the poorest sectors, who had provided Sandinismo with its pre-revolutionary social base. Thus, an effective freeze on money wages in the urban and state sectors was coupled with an attack on differentials and a concerted attempt to raise basic living standards at the same time as productivity, in the countryside.

The political dilemma was nowhere more clearly seen than in agriculture. Nicaraguan agriculture was an interlinked system of distinct forms of production; from modern, technological production to pre-capitalist subsistence farming. That system was the basis of the agro-export economy, and there was no time to reorganise it. Whatever changes took place in that system would have to guarantee the continuity of production. By the late seventies, 40% of rural workers were landless labourers, 30% were smallholders, 12.7% small commodity producers and 9% middle and large bourgeoisie. [59] Before the revolution, 90% of all credit went to large landowners; at the other end of the scale, only about 10% of the rural population had permanent employment. Clearly, the landless had to be given land, yet without interrupting the process of production. New land had to be brought into production, or made more efficient, while still providing guarantees to the rural bourgeoisie.

The answer to both problems were the cooperatives. During the first two years after the revolution, land was rented out cheaply, in both state and private sector, to landless peasants organised into cooperatives. At the same time Credit and Service Cooperatives were formed to draw small and middle peasants into joint organisations through which they could gain access to both credit and state finance. The cooperatives perform both a political and an economic purpose. By June 1980, 1,327 Sandinista cooperatives had been formed and the production of basic grains rose significantly; furthermore, a step had been taken towards the elimination of seasonal unemployment. Yet a problem remained, as the incorporation of many landless peasants into production left a labour shortage in the export sector. In the short term, the gap was filled with voluntary labour; in the longer term, however, that sector would have to compete for labour – and thus create a wage incentive.

The 1981 Plan restated the priorities – but the context was different and more menacing. The redistributive priorities of the first 18 months had been financed through foreign aid and loans. These policies now had to give way to the pursuit of accumulation. And the same criteria would apply in both state and private sectors; luxury consumption was further cut and the profitability criterion applied to state industries. [60] In the United States, Reagan had come to power with a new policy towards Nicaragua of economic de-stabilisation. Early aid programmes relied on the acquiescence of the Americans in the multilateral lending agencies [61]; Reagan, however, immediately cut all remaining US aid [62], and began to impede the granting of multilateral aid. [63] The likelihood, therefore, was that all sources of external aid would be affected. The new US policy was summed up by Haig: ‘although the Marxist government in Nicaragua might fall eventually of its own failures, the security of El Salvador requires the acceleration of the removal of the government in Managua.’ [64]

Further, and despite the favourable terms originally negotiated for the repayment of the foreign debt, Nicaragua spent 65% of its foreign earnings in 1980 on debt repayments and oil imports alone. Anticipated production levels in 1980 had not been reached (the shortfall in manufacturing was particularly serious) and the balance of payments was still negative. [65] At the end of 1980, the foreign debt hovered around $2 billion.

The reasons for the shortcomings in the 1980 Plan were many; in industry, industrial disputes had cost a great deal, while imports were rising in price. Production was still far short of taking up all its unused capacity, in good part because of the reluctance of the bourgeoisie to reinvest. The production priority, for all these reasons, became increasingly pressing.

As the Central American revolution developed, the international context became more difficult for Nicaragua. Western Europe (with the exception of France) and Christian Democracy in Latin America were less than happy about developments in the region, and began to share the view that Nicaragua was in part responsible for the intensification of the struggle. More centrally, the US-financed growth of counter-revolutionary organisations on the Honduran and Costa Rican frontiers made national defence an urgent priority. Military spending rose significantly (figures are not declared, but 18–20% would seem feasible) and the burden of maintaining a standing army of between 20,000 and 30,000 (50,000 by 1982) was added to the account. Further restrictions on imports were imposed, as well as controls on the export of capital.

On July 19th, 1981, Daniel Ortega (head of the government junta) announced a series of new measures, principal among them an extension in the Agrarian Reform programme. The announcement had a double purpose, one economic, the other ideological. Ortega presented the decision as a response to the refusal of sectors of the bourgeoisie to participate fully in production, and as part of the programme to make Nicaragua self-sufficient in food by 1982–3 (for most of the cooperative sector is devoted to the production of basic grains). About 350,000 acres of land were expropriated on the basis of neglect or inefficient use and given to workers’ cooperatives, with ample credit and technical assistance provided by government. In the economic sense, therefore, the Agrarian Reform was designed to bring more land into production; that was the only criterion for determining which land would be expropriated. On an ideological level, it was part of the process of mobilising the rural population behind the government’s strategy in which defence, production and austerity were intertwined in a policy for national development under hostile conditions.

The point was further emphasised in September 1981, with the Declaration of a State of National Economic and Social Emergency (converted into a Law in March 1982 and still in operation). The proportion of production still in private hands had not significantly changed in the two and a half years of revolution. According to the Report of the World Bank published in October 1981, Nicaragua’s economic recovery within a mixed economy depended on a significant increase in private investment. Yet the development of the counter-revolution had had the opposite effect. For the same reason, the emphasis on austerity, on sacrifice became more insistent – and was enshrined in the Emergency Laws. Relying on the mass organisations, and on its own political authority, the FSLN took further measures against non-essential consumption, against all threats to production (including strikes) and directed more investment into the search for alternative energy sources.

In its Report, the World Bank set out the economic priorities clearly – and claimed that the government agreed with its assessment. The urgent need, as they saw it was to intensify the rate of accumulation, to limit social spending and decrease the share of the public sector in the GDP – to maintain and deepen austerity. Logically, they argued, this economic model required further incentives to private investment, both local and multi-national. Obviously, the World Bank’s view took for granted Nicaragua’s role in the world economy, and the persistence of the mixed economy. This view was confirmed by the Nicaraguan government, in a document produced in March 1982; the document overstated the case for the mixed economy and political pluralism to the extent of comparing the role of the FSLN to that of De Gaulle, the Mexican PRI or the Italian Christian Democrats! [66]

The other side of the case was that while the new politics of austerity could only succeed on the basis of a general consensus in sacrifice and the intensification of production, the Emergency Decrees also contained clauses limiting the right to strike and the right to public criticism, and defining a series of economic crimes and threats to state security which were open to the widest interpretation. It became counter-revolutionary to threaten the continuity of production. The immediate result was the arrest of several members of COSEP and CAUS.

In his 1982 Economic Report [67], Cordoba Rivas discussed the results of the emergency. The public sector budget was nearly $100m less than anticipated; the balance of payments was $400m, and the social service budget had gone down from 17% to 15% of GDP – although the health and education services continued to develop, largely on the basis of voluntary labour.

The themes of Sandinista economics, then, were austerity, national defence and production. As international conditions worsened, and world recession was coupled with direct assaults on Nicaragua, the Sandinista government could not avoid the tasks of accumulation. The key question was what effect this combination of factors, national and international, would have on the development of the class struggle in Nicaragua. Historically, the combination of scarcity, external threat, and forced accumulation has produced regimes of a profoundly ruthless character. Yet the conditions of the Nicaraguan Revolution are significant, for a) it was a revolution made by the mass movement, b) it was conducted within a mixed economy in which c) the political leadership of the mass movement has assumed power directly and continues to exercise it. Yet it is doubtful that this new democracy can survive the assaults of austerity, external threat, and the implacable laws of accumulation. It cannot both conduct accumulation and at the same time prepare the working classes for the class conflict that will arise from that process.

The reaction of the old bourgeoisie

When Somoza was overthrown, the bourgeoisie found itself at a significant disadvantage. It had failed to ensure an ‘orderly transfer of power’ within the existing structures – and the state had been overthrown.

The new government represented the alliance of classes formed under FSLN leadership in the final weeks of the insurrection; in this sense it reflected clearly the political hegemony of the FSLN. Yet the old bourgeoisie was in no sense powerless. It did not control the state or the army, but it retained considerable economic power, as well as ideological influence through La Prensa, the official Church and the radio stations it still controlled. Further, it retained political influence over the middle classes, and in particular over many professionals in the state sector.

At first, the bourgeoisie judged that its economic power and influence in the international arena would allow it to resume political power. Robelo and Chamorro remained in the government for eight months before resigning. But they underestimated the FSLN’s determination to retain power in the state, just as they misjudged the extent to which mass participation in the insurrection would shape the institutions of post-revolutionary society. It was not, in any sense, a workers’ state; nonetheless, the mass organisations provided the FSLN with instruments of mobilisation and of production. And even without workers’ power, the option of the mixed economy was not the only alternative. The Sandinista control of the state clearly posed another possibility; the assumption of economic as well as political control directly by the new state, which would then carry out the tasks that the old bourgeoisie had proved unwilling to sustain the state capitalist alternative.

One of the original clauses of the Political Programme [68] referred to the establishment of an elected Council of State in which the bourgeoisie would have a majority. By October 1979, however, the FSLN made it clear that the composition of the Council would change, and that scheduled elections would be postponed until 1985. In the revised Council of State, announced four months later, the mass organisations, and thus the FSLN, would have a permanent majority. [69]

The Sandinistas had found their first base of power in the ATC and the CDSs, which represented not only the sectors most directly involved in the insurrection, but also those who benefited most directly from the redistributive measures. The other element of the worker-peasant alliance, the working class, presented more complex problems; yet the main trade union federations were all members of the bloc supporting the Frente. The professional organisations, for their part, had not yet suffered any appreciable drop in their levels of consumption, and the new state offered expanded job opportunities to professionals and technicians. In the intense ideological struggle being waged by the state, the old bourgeoisie was not in a position to consolidate its own bloc of forces; essentially, its influence lay among the bourgeoisie itself and its strength derived from its links with imperialist interests. Yet the initially tolerant attitude of the Carter administration also served to undermine any bourgeois bid for power.

This became clear in the debates around the composition of the Council of State – an argument which the bourgeoisie lost. In November 1980, COSEP members walked out of the Council of State, and in March 1981, Robelo staged a key test of bourgeois political influence. His party, the MDN, called a rally at Nandaime; as the time for the rally approached, the slogan ‘Nandaime no va’ (Nandaime won’t happen) began to appear on every wall. Without official FSLN support, the Sandinista Youth and the local Defence Committees set up barricades and stopped the rally. The walls then announced ‘Nandaime no fue’ (It didn’t happen).

The end of 1980 was a key moment in the course of the Nicaraguan revolution. With Reagan in the White House, the balance of class forces changed and the location of the class struggle shifted into the international arena. Reagan’s policies included the active encouragement and support of counter-revolutionary groups in Honduras and Costa Rica. The new economic policies, with their emphasis on austerity, were developed in anticipation of US economic assaults; they meant a cut in luxury consumption, a more aggressive policy towards unproductive private enterprise, and a new level of popular mobilisation around the slogan of national defence. Once again, it was the mass organisations that were called into action; and it was these organisations which, as far as the old bourgeoisie was concerned, expressed most clearly the definitive shift in the base of political power in the state.

By early 1981 the old bourgeoisie no longer believed in the possibility of taking power in the state; it returned to its historical strategy of calling for direct external intervention, on the grounds of the imminent collapse of the Nicaraguan economy and the inexorable shift towards communism. This was the content of a letter signed by four leading members of COSEP in September 1981, [70] and distributed among the world’s press. It was a direct challenge to the government which had just announced the State of Emergency – and it was also a response to the Anti-Interventionist Campaign within Nicaragua, organised by the FSLN as a protest against the new aggressions of the US – and in support of the State of Emergency. The COSEP members were jailed; La Prensa was closed for four days for contravening the censorship clauses in the Emergency Decree.

Clearly, the Emergency Decree was a response by the Sandinista state to a new level of aggressiveness in US policy. It also provided an instrument for the further consolidation of Sandinista hegemony, and for the restatement of the central political problem as anti-imperialist. Thus the Decree was directed against a bourgeoisie which, quite clearly, was acting as an agent for American policies towards Nicaragua; but it was also directed, as the repression of CAUS showed (see below), against those sectors who raised the question of the defence of workers’ interests, in however sectarian and opportunistic a way.

The old bourgeoisie, for its part, had developed a new international awareness. A significant section now moved behind the counter-revolution. In March, Eden Pastora, the much-lionised Comandante Cero who had led the National Palace raid in 1978 and commanded the all important Southern Front in 1979, announced that he had ‘gone over’. His argument was that the FSLN had gone Marxist and that its leaders were growing rich and excessively powerful. It was a publicity coup for the US, and a severe problem for the FSLN. Pastora was undoubtedly a popular figures, and his decision to ‘follow the smell of gunpowder’ and continue the revolution in Guatemala had echoes of Che’s farewell to Cuba. Yet Pastora, though an important military leader, was politically naive. And no doubt part of his resentment went back to the fact that he had been given no leading military or political position in the new state.

The Pastora incident was a test of FSLN political control. His picture was removed from the museums and the galleries of heroes, and his name was no longer used – he was referred to only as ‘the traitor’. People started started burning the militia cards which carried his picture, and this was then orchestrated on a national level by the Frente. Yet the repudiation seemed widespread and genuine – and a political triumph for the FSLN. In April Nicaragua was swept by a sense of imminent invasion; people began to build air-raid shelters and to hold their breath every time a plane flew overhead; the militias were in a state of permanent alert. In May, Robelo went to Costa Rica and announced that he had joined Pastora. His property was confiscated, and his uneasy coexistence with a state he had set out to capture came to an inevitable end. There was no doubt that the class struggle had intensified, and that the Frente would have to respond. Its central instrument would be the mass organisations.

Masses and classes in the Nicaraguan Revolution [71]

In the three years since the Revolution, the mass organisations have performed a double and contradictory function. On the one hand, they have served as the organisers of production, the watchdogs of productivity and the ideological instruments of the state. The CDSs and the Sandinista Youth, for example, have acted as local representatives of the Frente, and of government. Yet they have also been described as ‘instruments of socialist democracy’ [72] or (by the Frente itself) as ‘organs of popular power’. If the Nicaraguan Revolution is still open to further developments of the revolutionary process; if it is to become a field of class struggle [73], then the key role in such a process will fall to forms of class self-organisation developed precisely to carry that struggle forward.

When the Sandinistas seized state power, they did so as the leadership of an insurrectionary movement. The composition of that movement [74] was largely the urban poor, with a predominance of the young and the very young. [75] Although the movement had thrown up a number of new forms of organisation after February 1978, they were not, by and large, the product of any long-term tradition or accumulated experience. The only sector with such a tradition – the urban working class – did not as a class play an active, organised part in the fighting. The most solidly based were the Civil Defence Committees, which organised distribution, medical care and self-defence in the war zones. Within the barrios, elementary forms of military organisation around the barricades were expressed through the Sandinista militias. In the countryside, Sandinista cooperatives emerged in the liberated zones in an effort to maintain food production.

While the Frente, through its various tendencies, had been working in these different areas since 1975, these organisations had not existed in any real sense before 1978. The political energies of the Frente had largely been directed, in those years, towards work within broader front organisations – the women’s organisation AMPRONACS, for example, or the health workers’ and teachers’ unions. The Frente’s own cells, on the other hand, were extremely small and necessarily secret and they could not function as party organisations, since the Frente had no clear concept of the role or nature of the revolutionary party, and no programme for creating workers’ power in a post-revolutionary society.

Historically, the Frente had rejected the furtherance of workers’ material interests as ‘economism’ – and for much of its existence regarded mass work solely as a form of support action for the guerrillas. Thus it had never acquired any significant influence among organised workers. While in the seventies the FSLN had worked to organise peasants, and out of this work had built the basis of the ATC, for military reasons such work had not been sustained or consistent; in fact, in both the countryside and the urban barrios, the most enduring forms of grass-roots organisation were the radical Christian Base Communities, which the Frente worked closely with, and from which it drew many of its cadres. The decision by one section of the Frente (the Proletarian Tendency) to do systematic mass work in the urban areas had in fact led to a split in the organisation – although there was agreement among all three tendencies about the importance of student work, from which many of the FSLN’s cadres also came.

Thus these pre-revolutionary forms were above all organs of struggle, which emerged and disappeared according to the largely military needs of the insurrection. They were not Soviets, nor new forms of workers’ democracy. They did express the generalised opposition to Somocismo, and the potential for self-organisation. But the political organisations which interpreted and reflected the struggle were in fact united front organisations with sectors of the bourgeoisie. By the final days, there were thousands of people under arms – and it was they who would form the basis of the new Sandinista Army. Yet in July 1979, the Frente had no more than 500 members – and a year later, there were little more than 1,000. The task of the political organisation of the working class for the assumption of power was still to be developed. Again, the potential for mass-based revolutionary organisation was present – but no-one was arguing for it. Thus the mass organisations expressed, not the confidence and experience of a workers’ movement that had tested and tasted its own power, but rather the consolidation of the relationship between that movement and the new state.

The tension was clearly expressed in the months after the insurrection. The first organisations to be formed were the Sandinista Defence Committees (CDSs) modelled on the Cuban Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, but with the significant difference that they were rooted in a population with a direct and recent experience of struggle. [76] The CDSs were clearly designed, in the first place, to organise urban life in the immediate aftermath of Somoza’s overthrow; but they were also established with the aim of cementing the relationship between the social base of insurrection and the new state. Yet here, too, the leadership was chosen directly by the Frente, and built from the top downwards, both nationally and locally. Further, the period immediately after the victory was one of demobilisation, as raising levels of production took precedence over all other activities. [77]

The Sandinista Youth (JS-19) had a more direct political function, organising those young people who had made up the bulk of the fighting force in the final weeks, and tying them in a more permanent way to the FSLN. For the Frente’s influence among the young was overwhelming, and it was here that the new cadres would come from. Equally AMNLAE the women’s organisation was designed to build on the largely open work of the women’s organisations before the revolution, and to reflect the leading role of women within the Frente.

The key mass organisations, however, were those which, after the seizure of power, forged the political base of the Sandinista state – the worker-peasant alliance. These were the organisations of rural workers, ATC, and the Sandinista trade union federation, the CST.

The ATC was formed in April 1978, the product of work among the landless and impoverished peasants who had gained nothing from Somoza’s limited agrarian reforms and had suffered directly the weight of repression of the Somoza state. In December 1979, at its first Congress, it claimed 110,000 members. The debates at the Congress clearly reflected the dual priorities of the new state – the need to raise production and improve productivity, and the obligation to raise living standards in the countryside. And at the core was the question of land. The promise of land had more than anything else motivated the 40% of the population that was landless. Thus, when the FSLN tried to restrain land takeovers at the end of 1979, they were met with a mass demonstration of ATC members.

Fixed low rents, and the distribution of lands on state properties, answered some of the immediate demands – and the Agrarian Reform Law of 1981 further extended the amount of land available for redistribution. Yet the form of organisation through which land was redistributed reflected another tension. The long-term development of export agriculture would necessarily lead to the proletarianisation of the rural labour force – as those in the state sector had already become wage labourers for whom the ATC acted as a trade union. The agrarian reform affected the production of basic grains (maize, beans, rice); but the general policy in this area was not only to render Nicaragua self-sufficient in food, but also, by 1983, to begin the export of maize to other Central American countries. Thus this sector too had to be subject to criteria of efficiency and productivity, and to an overall direction of production. The new cooperatives (the CAS) acknowledged private ownership of land, but they also encouraged and asserted the collective exploitation of the land, simultaneously laying the basis for a future collectivisation of agriculture. The tension between ownership and socialisation later led to a separation of the CAS and the CCSs (temporary cooperatives of small and medium landowners) and the organisation of the latter into a separate organisation – the UNAG.

One plank of the worker-peasant alliance was therefore rapidly consolidated through the ATC. Improved general conditions of work, the right to participate in production decisions in the state sector, and the cooperative structure in the private sector, provided a direct link with the general economic strategy. Yet the small and medium producers also had a crucial role to play in the production of basic grains; the guarantee of sufficient food had been a central promise in the Sandinista platform. Thus production was the key, and the private sector was given easy credit facilities and guarantees of state support in order to ensure production and encourage it to raise productivity. The irony was that this served to reinforce the rural bourgeoisie and the ATC found itself arguing for restraint and productivity, both on the question of money wages and as far as land takeovers were concerned, even though this brought direct benefit to the private sector.

The other element of the alliance presented serious problems for the Sandinistas. After the seizure of power, the FSLN faced four trade union federations; and it lacked any working-class base of its own. These federations organised only a minority of the working class – yet they had traditions and roots. Further, they had been the continuous butt of FSLN criticism over the years. And while the condemnation of a repressive Somoza state had meaning for the peasantry and the urban poor, the organised working class had less experience of that direct repression. It had even won a number of concessions from Somoza, enshrined in the Labour Code and illustrated by the victory of the building workers’ strike in 1973. Of the four federations, the CNT (Social-Christian) had some strength among sugar and oil refinery workers; the CUS, formed by the AFL-CIO, had a very small membership: the CGTI, linked to the PSN, had a larger membership and some genuine roots in the urban working class. Yet the vast majority of workers were still unorganised.

In 1979, 343,000 people were employed in agriculture, 90,000 in industry, 228,000 in commerce and service industries, and 231,000 (28% of the economically active population) were unemployed. Of these, only about 4% were unionised (around 16,000 workers in all) and the bulk of these in the urban sector. The working class, then, was tiny and consisted overwhelmingly of workers in craft industries or small workshops. Yet politically, they were a crucial sector. While in its original base of support, the FSLN had had to confront, at worst, a weak bourgeois leadership, the working-class movement did contain organisations with traditions and an organised base.

Central was the PSN, whose relationship with the FSLN had always been one of open hostility. Thus, in 1977, when the failure of UDEL led the PSN to reconsider its relations with the FSLN, a small section broke away, rejecting all contact with the ‘petit bourgeois adventurists’ of the Frente. This sector formed the PCN, and its small trade union federation, the CAUS. There was another group, a pro-Chinese split from the FSLN (in 1970) called the Frente Obrero; its paper, El Pueblo, was directed at the working class – and it had also organised an armed group, the MILPAS, drawing in young workers and urban youth.

The Frente’s early dealings with the working class were far from successful. The Sandinista trade union organisation, the CST, was founded soon after the victory – but it did not emerge from any existing group, as the ATC had done. It was appointed by the new state, to organise the unorganised workers, and to challenge the leadership of the existing organisations. Yet the CST too, displayed an ambiguous role. For it was charged with organising and supervising production, and with winning the working class to the general strategy of Sandinismo. Yet part of that strategy was a lessening of differentials between country and city, a raising of the lowest wages, and a general restraint on the wage levels of the highest paid. Further, that argument was taking place in a context in which most of industry was still in private hands.

Its first actions were clumsy. The first clash came with the workers at the San Antonio Sugar Refinery, who struck for a 100% wage rise – and were encouraged in their strike by the Frente Obrero. The government closed down El Pueblo, arrested FO members, and attempted to dissuade the workers. In the end they granted a 30% wage rise and a number of other concessions. In January 1980, a strike by 4,000 building workers on a new park project in Managua brought the FSLN into direct confrontation with the entrenched PSN leadership of the union. It had already attempted to seize the leadership of the building workers union by creating a new CST organisation and arresting the PSN leader of the union when he refused to accept the manoeuvre. In early January, building workers demonstrated against the CST operation and won the release of the union leader. The strike came in response to the government’s decision to lower wages and remove the annual bonus in order to provide more jobs. Wheelock on behalf of the government, argued that the bonus was ‘a demagogic concession’ on the part of Somoza. It was pointed out to him that the bonus had been won through struggle – and that it, like the weekly wage, were the only basis for maintaining workers’ living standards. The government retracted.

January and February 1980 also brought a series of strikes over wages led by the CAUS – the most bitter of them at the FABRITEX factory in Managua. Here the CST acted to stop the strikes, and mounted an intense campaign against CAUS which led to the sacking of several of its offices in early March. [78]

The problem was illustrated when a group of workers at the El Caracol food factory took over the plant in February. The reasons for the takeover were decapitalisation by the bosses and a fall in production. This won immediate government approval – and was organised by the CST. Clearly, there were two concepts of trade union organisation in conflict – as continuing clashes with CAUS and FO throughout 1980 illustrated. The new role set out for the unions through the CST was centred on production [79]: they were to oversee the raising of production and productivity, and to win the argument for austerity and sacrifice, to translate the imperatives of national defence into the workplace. But what this meant for the working class in real terms was a reduction in their standard of living. [80] The Frente argued that this would be compensated in two ways: through the development of the social wage, social services, etc.; and through a far greater participation in production decisions. [81] The PCN and the FO, on the other hand, described the regime as ‘bourgeois nationalist’, and maintained that the role of trade unions remained the pursuit of a higher standard of living. And the argument clearly had some weight, where the bulk of production was in private or state hands, and the general politics of austerity benefited all sectors of capital equally. And while the general implication was that the working class now had a leading political role in the state, the reality did not confirm that. Industry was not central to the general plan for economic development; and the working class was not in power. Even Tomas Borge recognised that, in 1981, when he asserted that:

The Sandinista government does not want an official governmental trade union movement. What we need is a trade union organisation responsive to the interests of the workers. The working class in Nicaragua must have the right to say ‘no’ where appropriate and ... even ... the right to confront the government when it is necessary. [82]

To an extent this reflected the failure of the attempt, early in 1980, to create a unified trade union confederation; it was also a response to the continuing working-class discontent that the CAUS and the FO had capitalised on. But it would be disingenuous to accept Borge’s argument about trade union independence. On the one hand it has to be stressed that the working class was tiny and that the unionised section of the class was smaller still. In the absence of a material force arguing for and organising along class lines, it was illusory to expect class-based organisation to develop.

Furthermore, in a situation of scarcity, wage demands cannot be met. The direct benefits – according to the Sandinista vision – would not come to the workers for some time, though the general perspective was a socialisation of the economy, and a gradual expropriation of the private bourgeoisie. [83] Yet the rhythm of that Process would not be determined by the pace of internal class struggle within Nicaragua. On the contrary, the progressive limitations on the right to strike, to criticise, or to debate the general issues of socialism, for instance as posed in Poland, suggested that independent class organisation was permanently sacrificed to the immediate task of accumulation. Yet the only way in which the

FSLN could win acceptance of its general perspective of a transition to socialism was by clear progress towards democracy in the workers’ movement, and workers’ control over the economic process as a whole. In a situation of external threat, and a growing urgency in accumulation, the two were, and remain contradictory.

The militias were also a significant mass organisation, the tangible representation of the marriage of production and national defence. Formed in 1980, the militias were to provide a permanent reserve of civilian defence: yet their purpose was more directly political. The military uniform became a mark of political commitment, and the weekly training sessions were above all political education forums as well as opportunities for military preparation. The militias quickly reached a membership of 100,000 – for the threat of external aggression was very real. They were based in communities and workplaces, and centred on the existing mass organisations.

For socialists, the arming of the people is a central element in the struggle for socialism. Here apparently, the class was being provided with the capacity to defend its conquests with arms. Yet the role of the militias was deeply ambiguous. In the emergency of April 1982, the militias were charged with guarding strategic roads, bridges, etc., releasing the army for the war on the borders. Yet the arms remained under the control of the army; it was not the mass organisations who controlled and distributed them. The guns remained weapons of national defence rather than class struggle, under the control of a highly politicised but professional army.

In general terms, the role of the mass organisations has been to cement the political hegemony of the FSLN and win mass support for the initiatives and strategies of the state. It seems clear, however, that they are not mass democratic organisations. While they can mobilise large numbers around specific initiatives like the disaster of May this year or the health campaigns, they still represent a potential base for direct political participation. Yet they are firmly controlled, both directly by the Frente and indirectly by the general constraints on public debate and criticism within the National Emergency Law: for the emergency has two faces. The external threat is real enough; but it also addresses itself to the urgency of accumulation, and the sacrifices that such a process is based upon. In a country with weak political traditions, facing permanent and immediate crises and a real and enduring scarcity, the solutions to each of these problems lies outside the national frontiers. And where Nicaragua finds itself at the axis of so many other economic and political forces, which it cannot control, the development of democracy could well be seen as an open door to the multiple agencies of reaction, whose assaults have intensified in the last six months. [84] These are the conditions under which the FSLN has set out to win political hegemony.

Sandinismo has been, above all, profoundly pragmatic. Its programme of government, for example, was the product of an alliance with other social forces. The cadres of the Frente were trained in Marxism, yet it is not a revolutionary party. The Proletarian Tendency had argued that a revolutionary party had to exist before the seizure of power was possible; the Terceristas, on the other hand, held that such an organisation could be built after, and out of, the overthrow of Somoza. [85]

In the event, Somoza was overthrown and political organisation was thereafter undertaken by the state. According to various writers the tendencies were dead [86]; the Frente had unified around a single policy. The National Directorate of the FSLN certainly presents an unanimous appearance, and is undoubtedly united around the central tasks to be fulfilled. Yet there is a contradiction at the heart of Sandinismo, which must be reflected within the leadership. It is the contradiction between the defence of the national state, and accumulation, on the one hand, and the fulfilment of the material interests of the working masses – which itself requires workers’ power, socialism – on the other.

The FSLN seized power without a revolutionary organisation rooted in the masses. This was reflected in the absence of middle or rank-and-file cadres. The administration of the post-revolutionary state, therefore, rests in the hands of middle class professionals and technocrats whose commitment to workers’ power is extremely questionable. The Frente set out to build ‘popular power’ from the state downwards, and while maintaining a tight political control. Power derived from the general support of the masses; but the real power of the Frente lay in its control over the army, where the most serious and sustained political education takes place. It was the army that represented the political leadership, and in style and language the Frente’s hegemony was expressed in a permanent military metaphor. Put another way, the political model was a model of command; and the role of the mass organisations was to execute decisions and strategies evolved by the National Directorate of the Frente without debate: ‘the National Directorate will command’ (Direccion Nacional ordene) is one of the most frequent slogans at demonstrations and political events.

This structure of leadership is reinforced by several other factors. The urgency of production made the demobilisation of the people an urgent necessity in the aftermath of insurrection – and it remained the priority in a situation of constant scarcity. The language of political loyalty was rooted in the ideas of sacrifice, austerity and discipline – the fruit of a necessity which set clear frontiers on what was politically possible. The central political symbol of the FSLN, for example, are the ‘heroes and martyrs’ who ‘didn’t say they were dying for their country, but died for it’ – and Nicaragua has many murdered heroes to refer to. Struggle remains the central theme – but not class struggle. Rather it is continuously posed as national, and anti-imperialist. For the politics of the Sandinista government are determined by reasons of state – by the need to maintain, where possible, an internal political alliance with the old bourgeoisie, and an external one with the same class, not in the interests of a developing class struggle within the country, but in response to the imperatives of survival for a tiny country in a world arena.

These imperatives combine in a model of state-led politics. As scarcity becomes more pronounced under systematic US pressure and as international social democracy grows cold towards Nicaragua, the exhortation becomes more and more insistent, and the space for independent organisation narrows. The dominant politics is increasingly a version of "socialism" which identifies it with the state organising economic growth rather than with workers’ power; a version that is reinforced by the practice of Nicaragua’s Russian technical advisers. Bookshops carry almost exclusively Cuban and Eastern European volumes, all of which enthusiastically emphasise the reasons of state, accumulation and discipline.

There is, however, another current within Sandinismo which rebuts the mechanistic and nationalist emphasis of Russian politics. It is represented above all by Ernesto Cardenal and Tomas Borge. Borge refers frequently in his extremely moving speeches to the New Man of the Revolution [87], the product of new social relations, of love and cooperation. These ideas have a strength in Nicaragua, where the theology of liberation was a powerful and popular ideology among the very sectors where the FSLN laid its roots. Among the peasantry and the urban poor, the Christian Base Communities, with their philosophy of radical social action, filled the political vacuum. Hence the presence within the government of five radical priests. This idea is most powerful in the Ministry of Culture, which Ernesto Cardenal runs, and which emphasises self-expression, cooperation and creativity; and within education. Cardenal’s brother, Fernando, headed the 1980 Literacy Campaign, which set out to teach basic skills to 400,000 people. It was very successful, both in mobilising urban youth behind the campaign, and in consolidating the revolution in the countryside. [88] The campaign was imbued with idealism, and with an emphasis on the capacity of workers and peasants to seize control of their own lives.

The real world bears down on Nicaragua. It is tiny and impoverished; its old bourgeoisie is vengeful and provincial and, having abandoned the hope of taking power, is progressively abandoning the economy to its fate and the future to Ronald Reagan; and it stands at the heart of an area of the world where, in the view of US imperialism, the future is at stake. Its history hangs on it as a burden – and the idealistic language of use-value and cooperation cannot hide the implacable necessity to develop its economy out of a ‘qualitative dependency’. [89] It can attempt to juggle the forces that govern that process – but it cannot control them.

Contradictions of the Sandinista Revolution

As the insurrection drew closer, the FSLN found itself with some unexpected allies. West Germany supported a negotiated solution that included the FSLN. The Christian Democrats of Costa Rica and Venezuela decided in February 1979 to give material aid to the Sandinistas; Mexico, too, made its rejection of Somoza clear at an early stage. The Europeans saw it as an opening in the heart of the American empire – and as a potential field of influence and investment in what had hitherto been the territory of US capital.

Mexico and Venezuela, too, saw an economic possibility. Nicaragua, as it developed, would be a new market for their oil and their capital and manufactured goods. Further, the Central American revolution was developing, and Nicaragua could provide an entry into that, an even wider field of investment.

After the overthrow of Somoza, Nicaragua turned to massive foreign aid to pay for its redistributive policies. By 1981, 50% of that aid was coming from Latin America and the Third World, 32% from Western Europe and just over 18% from Cuba and Eastern Europe. Clearly, the West was willing to finance Sandinismo, but there were conditions – the mixed economy, and political pluralism. The United States under Carter had been benevolent at first, and most of the foreign aid during the first year came from or through the United States. [90] Most of it went to the private sector, in an attempt to maintain American influence over the Nicaraguan process. Yet at the same time, the Central American revolution was advancing. The US-backed coup in El Salvador, in October 1979, was designed to head off a Nicaraguan effect – but it served only to expose the contradictions there more sharply. The Nicaraguan effect had already made its impact – not in terms of a democratic experiment, but of the possibility of a successful seizure of power through mass insurrection. Since Chile, the tide had run firmly against radical change; Nicaragua turned the stream again.

For the Eastern bloc, Nicaragua was a problem. The USSR waited the customary few months before declaring itself, and then began to provide limited, emergency aid. Yet its position on Central America remains deeply ambiguous. The region lies within the American sphere of influence, and although it is interested in splits and divisions within the American camp, it clearly does not want another Cuba – it would be much too costly and vulnerable. Economically, Nicaragua is of little interest to Russia; it has never imported Nicaraguan products, and its investment potential is very limited. The USSR has its own economic crisis to settle, and its own internal political crisis to resolve. The major area of Russian and Cuban influence is in technical assistance – where the political concepts of the USSR are translated into forms of organisation and strategies for growth. Clearly, neither Cuba nor the USSR would benefit from the defeat of the Nicaraguan revolution, reinforcing the monolith of US imperialism under an aggressive crisis regime.

The Nicaraguans have attempted to take advantage of their focal place in a network of relationships – diplomatic and economic – to ensure support for their economic strategy. The Cubans and the Russians both advised caution in their dealings with the old bourgeoisie; the originality of Nicaragua was that a political bloc had been built around it which threatened Carter’s trilateralism and US expansion in Europe – which suited the Russians very well. Sandinista flexibility was a response to this delicate balance – for its primary need was the widest range of channels of aid. The Cubans and the Russians provided the technical know-how – the Cubans particularly in the military sphere. The Western European and Latin American social democrats provided the bulk of the finance – and Libya’s $100m aid programme opened a door to the Arab world, and possible alternative sources of oil.

With Reagan’s entry into the White House, however, the scenario changed. Trilateralism gave way to an aggressive expansionism focussed on Central America. The conflict in El Salvador was a fundamental challenge to Reagan’s strategic ambitions, and he identified it as an East-West struggle on Western soil. At the same time, Reagan named Nicaragua as the source of spreading revolution – and raised the level of economic and political pressure, not only on Central America itself, but also on Nicaragua’s supporters. The well orchestrated campaign to show that Nicaragua had abandoned pluralism was directed at these erstwhile allies.

By March 1982, the elections in El Salvador marked a difficult moment in the Salvadorian struggle – and for Nicaragua. In preceding months, thousands of highly trained troops had been brought into El Salvador. The Reagan government was moving towards restarting arms sales to Guatemala and the Rios Montt coup in March was supposed to facilitate that. The Honduran military were being rearmed, US bases were being built there, and the Hondurans were taking an increasingly direct role in El Salvador. Costa Rica was entering a profound economic crisis from which only US aid could save it. And the CIA was granted $19m for covert activities against Nicaragua, to add to the military support already being given to the counter-revolution.

In such a context, bourgeois democracy grew cooler towards Nicaragua. The crisis in the Malvinas/Falklands, however, changed the situation. Europe gave reluctant support to Britain, but in Latin America the reaction was almost unanimously in support of Argentina. Momentarily, a Latin American alliance confronted the US. The Nicaraguans, as usual, took skilful advantage of the crisis to cement and repair their relations with Latin America. France too provided $15m worth of arms, and received a visit from Daniel Ortega in July; and in his turn Herrera Campins, President of Venezuela, made an official visit to the 19th of July celebrations in Masaya.

The temporary breach in US relations with Latin America favoured Nicaragua, releasing the immediate pressure and allowing it to pay some attention to the torrential rains that caused such enormous damage in May. But the response to the disaster appeal was sluggish, and by July the pressure was on again. Counter-revolutionary armed attacks grew more intense, and Somocista groups tried to take the towns of Jalapa and Puerto Cabezas, at either extreme of the Honduran border. A battle lasting for weeks across the same frontier cost 50 Sandinista lives – and the whole military structure was mobilised in anticipation of major assaults on the 19th. On the morning of the anniversary, a small plane came perilously close to blowing up 800,0000 gallons of oil stored at the port of Corinto.

The Malvinas/Falklands conflict was over. The US administration could have adopted a conciliatory position and tried to repair its breach with Latin America. Instead, Reagan’s response was the line of force, the re-imposition of US domination by weight of arms. And one element of such a policy was a renewed economic, ideological and military assault on Nicaragua.

Since 1979, the Sandinistas have been careful to keep open the widest network of international relationships. The result has been a diplomatic caution based on national survival; the FSLN has repeated the Russian line on Poland, abstained in the UN vote on Afghanistan, given support to the Palestinian cause and refrained from comment on internal repression in Mexico. While supporting the guerrilla struggle in Central America, it has also vigorously supported peace proposals for the region, as in Ortega’s speech to the UN in March. Each set of relationships has required specific compromises.

Yet it has also meant that Nicaragua is not yet part of the Russian bloc. Aid from Eastern Europe is considerable, but still small by comparison. [91] Russian influence and the Cuban presence are visible but not overwhelming. Politically, this dependence for survival on a complex of international networks has emphasised and reinforced the nationalism within Sandinismo, the politics of anti-imperialism and broad internal security.

Clearly, the maintenance of external alliances implies a corresponding internal alliance of classes. And even were that to change, that would not mean the resumption of a ‘suspended’ class struggle. The state has its own imperatives, which have already led it to place limits on the capacity of the working classes to defend their own interests and develop their own forms of organisation to that end. The new state has already consolidated its power over economy and society, and taken on the tasks of accumulation. The development of a conscious working-class movement organised for the assumption of state power and the construction of socialism has yet to occur.

On May 1st, 1982, the CST appeared with banners demanding ‘the defence of the revolution and the transition to socialism’. In his speech on the day, Tomas Borge spoke of the new man, new social relationships, of an end to exploitation – but he did not mention socialism. [92] The FSLN insisted that it was an independent CST decision and not official Frente policy.

What did ‘socialism’ mean in this context? For some, it was a pointer to the radicalisation of the revolution, a move, perhaps, towards further expropriations. But there was no evidence of that in the weeks that followed. Nor did it mean any changes in the nature of the mass organisations, or in the role of workers’ organisations within the state. The declaration instead made specific reference to the decision to press forward certain forms of workers’ participation in production, and to consolidate other benefits, like the factory shops and the collective contracts. Beyond that, the changing international situation had, if anything, reinforced the existing character of Sandinismo.

It has been a constant theme of Sandinista politics that democracy means more than voting, that it means a genuine, conscious participation in the running of society – and above all, economic democracy. Yet that is a very different thing from workers’ power. In state capitalism – particularly in Yugoslavia for instance – and among the European reformist left, worker participation has been a a central theme. Yet that participation represents an invitation to workers’ leaders to administer capitalism and apply its laws and imperatives directly. Socialism, on the other hand, involves the direct control of production by the producers through the organs of revolutionary democracy – and in order to realise the needs of the producers as a class. Without the organised capacity of workers to continue to struggle for their own interests and against management whether private or state, the talk of a transition to socialism is little more than abstract rhetoric at best, and at worst an attempt to incorporate the working class directly into the organisation of their own exploitation. ‘Participation’ is not a half-way house to workers’ power; on the contrary it is a way of demobilising the very struggles that are needed to create it in the first place.

In Nicaragua, as long as scarcity characterises the economy, the best possible situation would be one in which the mass organisations were genuine, democratic rank-and-file organisations, with an independent capacity for political organisation and education, and the capacity to exercise increasing control over the direction of the political process. Yet today, in Nicaragua, that is not their role. Two factors have ensured that: first, the urgency of national defence, labour discipline and above all of firm state control over the institutions of society. It is not only the external threat that makes this imperative; it is also the need for continuing austerity, where scarcity cannot be equally distributed; for labour discipline and higher productivity is called for in both private and public sectors.

A new political cadre is being developed, particularly within the army and the Sandinista youth; yet to talk to leading members of either organisation is an arresting experience. A broad, if mechanistic grasp of world politics, is coupled always with an almost mystical moralism, full of terms like discipline, heroism and sacrifice, all combined in the faintly disturbing cult of the person of Carlos Fonseca, the dead founder of the FSLN. According to Ortega, there are half a million people in the mass organisations – about 20% of the population. [93] That probably reflects the best estimate of Sandinista support. Yet the pressing necessities of state, the discontents generated by deepening scarcity, are unlikely to permit a more democratic involvement of those half million – on the contrary, criticism is denounced as counter-revolutionary, and participation will more and more centre on obedience, loyalty and faith in the leadership. For in the absence of political cadres, of a political tradition, and under conditions which severely test the ability of any organisation or state to maintain consensus and hegemony, democracy becomes a dangerous luxury. Participation means executing decisions taken – and the predominant militarism in Nicaragua, the widespread military presence, reinforces the Command Model of politics. Sandinista attitudes to the party reflect the same ambiguity. For the moment, the FSLN remains a politico-military organisation, whose leaders wear uniform and carry guns. The party, and the problem of revolutionary democracy, is not discussed.

There is no possibility of restoration of power to the private bourgeoisie in Nicaragua; there are as yet no serious internal challenges to FSLN leadership. Yet there is discontent, frustration and constant talk of shortages. In the end people judge a revolution by what is on the table. Three years is a very short time to create a level of political consciousness voluntarily disposed to accepting years of sacrifice and austerity. Yet this is a country where pre-capitalist forms still exist, and where national unity is pursued against a background of different cultures and different languages. [94]

In economic terms, there seems little possibility of an end to scarcity. The balance of payments worsened in 1981–82, the price of Nicaraguan exports on the world market fell, and external aid is becoming increasingly difficult to get. In a year’s time, the grace period on earlier loans is over, and unless they can be renegotiated they will swallow almost all Nicaragua’s foreign earnings. Imports have already been reduced to a minimum, and consumer goods are growing harder to find every day. The basics are assured – but barely. And the prospect for national economic development is faced with exactly the same difficulties that ensured its frustration on two previous occasions in Nicaragua’s history. Nicaragua has not broken with the world market, only sought to renegotiate its relationship with it.

The bourgeoisie has remained until now because its profits and its economic power have been guaranteed. As the world recession deepens, and Nicaragua is further besieged, the price may become too high – and they will leave with what they can carry to make a new life with the Cuban exiles in Miami. Yet this is not 1960, when the world economy was expanding, and a gradualist alternative could be used to isolate Cuba. It is 1982, and the crisis of the world system East and West is profound. Afghanistan, Poland, and Central America, represent the need to discipline and control the system in a period of general stagnation. Nicaragua cannot escape that crisis – though it has been able to exploit some of its contradictions to its own benefit.

The future will repeat the themes of austerity and sacrifice, and the world economy inflict its brutal laws on Nicaragua. These conditions are inimical to democracy. It is likely that the state will move further towards control of the economy, as the old bourgeoisie deserts and the maintenance of production becomes increasingly the key to physical survival.

Yet Nicaragua cannot survive alone. One direction in which it may look is the Russian bloc; yet the Russian bloc has its own economic and political crisis, and even Cuba is looking to the world market and to foreign capital. Economically, then, the USSR has little to gain in Nicaragua. Politically, it is very unlikely that it will be prepared to confront the United States on Nicaraguan soil.

Yet this will not mean, and cannot mean, the restoration of the old bourgeoisie to power. As a class, it has lost control of the state, though it still controls part of the framework in which that state continues to exist. The working people of Nicaragua have tasted a personal and social freedom they have never known; they have rights, their children survive and even the poorest go to school. It is not socialism, not workers’ power – but it is a step, and an important one, in the direction of liberation. Further – and this is the key element – that element of liberation was won; and thus the talk of workers’ democracy, of popular power etc. have a meaning and a reality in the context of Nicaragua’s revolution, a reference point in a real experience. It is more than dry rhetoric.

The laws of the system press in on Nicaragua; but the example of its revolution also points outwards. In the rest of Central America, a struggle is developing, also with a mass base. These are not guerrilla focos, but mass armed movements which may also one day conquer state power. For Nicaragua, that would lessen the pressure, and widen the material base and the political foundation of its survival. None of this can solve the problems of development, or absolve Nicaragua from the obligation to develop its productive forces. But it can change the conditions under which it takes place, relieve the immediate effects of scarcity, provide a greater space for manoeuvre and perhaps lessen the extent of Russian influence. More than that, it would change the balance of class forces on a world scale again.

If the Central American revolution suffers any major defeat, however, the prospects for Nicaragua will be bleak. It would face appalling economic problems that not even the most advanced political consciousness could overcome, problems beyond the control of even a developed proletarian state if it became isolated. Thus the fate of the revolution is directly tied to the development of the revolutionary movement beyond its borders – and that is the central political dilemma. For here, reasons of state conflict with Proletarian internationalism.

There is no doubt that the direct involvement of the Nicaraguan Proletariat in the Sandinista Revolution has been at a qualitatively higher level than, say, the Cuban Revolution. Yet despite the potential for socialism expressed in that involvement, the prospect of a transition to socialism in Nicaragua remains remote. The international context is one crucial reason; more significantly, the continuing struggle for workers’ power and a workers’ state demands other conditions which are absent in Nicaragua.

The first such condition is the existence of a revolutionary party, rooted in the working class and presenting a political alternative to populism and petit bourgeois nationalism. The basis for such a party would need to have been laid prior to the revolution, so that the masses entered the revolutionary process aware of the need to create their own independent organs of class power. Yet neither within the FSLN, nor outside it, was such a Leninist strategy developed. The question was posed during the factional debates of 1975–77; the pressure of events and the political imposition of the Terceristas, however, ensured that it was not developed as a strategy. Thus the political nucleus around which the argument for turning the revolution in a socialist direction might have crystallized was absent in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period.

The objective historical context was equally unfavourable. Revolutionary socialist ideas take root in the working class movement to the extent that there exists within it a certain level of organisation and activity – an existing struggle against the employers. Without it the confidence and consciousness which are the foundation of workers’ councils in the factories – the basic organizational form of workers’ power – are simply lacking. Yet the industrial working class formed an elite under Somoza. Only 16,000 workers even belonged to trade unions. Where such a tiny number of workers have developed trade union consciousness it would require a far greater development of the struggle before the level of mass revolutionary consciousness capable of creating workers’ councils is reached.

Without these objective and subjective conditions the high level of mass involvement will not lead the revolution towards socialism. Who, then, will be the beneficiaries? It seems unlikely that the old bourgeoisie will reassert themselves; many have already left the country and for the rest the prospects of recovery in the midst of a world recession that has brought even wealthy Mexico to the brink of disaster seem very remote.

This leaves the Sandinista state. Increasingly it will be forced to take upon itself the task of capital accumulation; the economic crisis, the need for national defence and the desertion of the bourgeoisie will ensure that. And the working class movement itself is unlikely to accept any other form of hegemony. Tragically, what this amounts to is the further consolidation of state capitalism.

Predicting the future is a dangerous and fruitless pursuit. A whole number of factors may yet intervene in Nicaragua before the new state bureaucracy is fully consolidated within the Sandinista state. Other possibilities exist: a successful US backed counter-revolution, on the one hand; or a destruction of the state under working class pressure on the other. Excluding these possibilities, however, (and the latter is sadly the least likely) the consolidation of the state-capitalist alternative becomes increasingly the likely outcome of the process.

The survival of the Sandinista state will therefore impose one set of pressures; the development of the class struggle will impose another. Yet, there is still room, and there are structures in which working class self-organisation can develop. For revolutionaries throughout the world, solidarity – raising the political costs of military intervention in Central America – is not only a moral obligation but a concrete contribution to the development of the revolutionary organisation of the working class. Only to the extent that the tide turns in favour of the Central American revolution, as a prelude to fundamental change in the rest of Latin America, will the most positive elements of the Nicaraguan revolution – its idealism, its commitment to popular power, and its identification with socialism, in however confused a form – allow the next steps to be taken on the road to workers’ power.


1. H. Weber, Nicaragua: the Sandinista revolution (London 1981), p. 49.

2. J. Wheelock, Raices indigenas de la lucha anticolonialista en Nicaragua (Mexico 1979).

3. J. Wheelock, Imperalismo y dictadura (Mexico 1980). Cf. in general on the economic history of the country.

4. See Apuntes para la historia de Nicaragua (Managua 1980), vol. I, pp. 57-59.

5. Cf. Wheelock, 1980, p. 68 and Selser, Elpequeno ejercito loco, chapter 1.

6. This is mentioned by Selser, whose Sandino general de hombres libres (Costa Rica 1979) and Elpequeno ejercito loco (Havana 1960) are the best accounts of Sandino’s life.

7. Sandino quoted in Jose Benito Escobar, Ideario Sandinista (FSLN, Managua), p. 7.

8. S. Ramirez, El pensamiento vivo de Sandino (Havana 1980) pp. 75–78. This is the best and most complete collection of Sandino’s writings.

9. Wheelock, La mosquitia en la revolucion (Managua, 1981).

10. E. Torres Rivas, Influencia de la crisis del 29 en Nicaragua, in Casanova (ed.), America Latina en los anos 30 (Mexico 1977), pp. 89–112.

11. Cf. Selser’s account of it in Apuntes sobre Nicaragua (Mexico 1978), pp. 81–94.

12. See R. Belausteguigoitia: Con Sandino en Nicaragua (Madrid 1934), p. 181.

13. H. Ortega, 50 anos de lucha sandinista (Mexico 1979), p. 30.

14. See Wheelock, 1980.

15. Weber, op. cit., p. 17.

16. see Alegria and Flakoll, Nicaragua: la revolucion sandinista (Mexico 1982), pp. 128–135. And in general on Somoza, see R. Millett, Guardians of the Dynasty (1977).

17. In fact, Vincente Lombardo Toledano, a Mexican and a key figure in the Latin America Communist movement, was invited by Somoza to form the PSN, the better to enable Somoza to control and contain the incipient working class movement.

18. Selser, Apuntes, p. 182.

19. On this period in general see O. Nunez, El somocismo y el modelo agroexportador somocista (Managua 1981). There was considerable US investment in Nicaraguan cotton, as liberation movements in Africa were threatening the supply from there.

20. See Ramirez in Las classes sociales en Nicaragua (Managua 1981), pp. 68–9.

21. See NACLA, Nicaraguan report, February 1976, pp. 9–12.

22. See Wheelock, 1980, and Nunez, 1981.

23. Nunez, 1981, p. 27.

24. This is described in Wheelock (1980), chapters 5 and 6.

25. Nunez, 1981, p. 89.

26. In Chile, for example, the Christian Democrat agrarian reform had met structural obstacles – the resistance of the landowning classes – which posed deeper questions of structural reform that the Christian Democrat Party was not willing to confront – with the result that the reform was paralysed and the Party began to split on the question.

27. See R. Millett, op. cit.

28. J.M. Blandon’s Entre Sandino y Fonseca Amador (Managua 1980) is the fullest general account of the attempts at armed struggle during the fifties and early sixties.

29. The account of his imprisonment is in Chamorro, Los Somoza: estirpe sangrienta (Mexico 1980) and Diario de unpreso (Managua 1980).

30. See Ortega, 50 anos ..., pp. 85–94.

31. See C. Fonseca, La Hora O (Managua 1981), pp. 20–23.

32. Ibid., p. 24.

33. Ibid., p. 26.

34. Ibid., p. 27.

35. H Ruiz in Sobre las crisis y las tendencias del FSLN (1977).

36. See the account by Doris Tijerino, whose case was well known and who endured terrible torture, in M. Randall, Daughters of the revolution (1981). Another prisoner, Jacinto Suarez, tells his story in Nicarauac, no. 3, Managua, December 1980, pp. 31–54.

37. On the subject of liberation theology and the role of Christians in the revolution see Nicarauac, no. 5, 1981.

38. J. Wheelock in P. Arias (ed.), Nicaragua: revolucion (Mexico 1980), p. 106.

39. See Valdivia (p. 113) and Torres (p. 117) in Arias, op. cit.

40. See NACLA 1976, pp. 31–34; H. Jung, The Fall of Somoza, in New Left Review 117, Sept/Oct 1979, pp. 69–89; G. Garcia Marquez: Los Sandinistas (Bogota 1980), pp. 169–242 and Sobre la crisis ...

41. The irony is that Nicaragua had the highest per capita income in Central America throughout the 1960s.

42. See Weber op. cit., p. 60.

43. See Selser, Apuntes, pp. 63–68.

44. The Editorial Nueva Nicaragua has just published two new books of testimonies on the Monimbo struggle, whose titles are not yet available.

45. See the account of the assault by G. Garcia Marquez in New Left Review 1978.

46. Cf. the interview with Humberto Ortega by Marta Haernecker in E Pineda, La revolucion nicaraguense (Madrid 1980) p. 182.

47. For a general account of the rising see Arias, op. cit. Alegria Flakoll op. cit. and C. Nunez, Un pueblo en armas (Managua 1981).

48. Ernesto Cardenal, a trappist, is now Minister of Culture. His community in the lake of Nicaragua, Solentiname, became a centre for the theology of liberation. The 1977 San Carlos raid was launched from there, and it was finally destroyed by Somoza’s bombs in February 1978.

49. Carmen Diana Deere, A comparative analysis of agrarian reform in El Salvador and Nicaragua, in Development and Change (London 1982), p. 28.

50. G. Selser, Apuntes.

51. Ibid., pp. 113–115.

52. Cf. the description by Nunez of the people of the barrios of Acahulainca gathering around the waste tips from the local slaughterhouse in search of food; in Arias, op. cit.

53. It was estimated that 75% of all communicable disease in Nicaragua was the direct result of the lack of drinking water and bad sanitation.

54. The concept of pluralism is developed in the government’s What the present regime does not want you to know about Nicaragua (Managua, March 1982) in the direction of bourgeois democracy; see the ‘grass roots’ concepts in C. Nunez, Las fuerzas motrices en la revolucion (Managua 1981).

55. R. Fagen, Revolution and transition in Nicaragua, in Socialist Review (New York) no 59, vol. 11 no. 5, Sept./Oct. 1981, p. 16.

56. J. Wheelock speech reported in Intercontinental Press.

57. Sobre la problematica actual (Managua 1982), p. 14.

58. In fact Somoza had diversified external trade relations through the seventies as the government acknowledges in What the present ...

59. See Deere and Marchetti, The worker-peasant alliance in the first year of the Nicaraguan Revolution, in Latin American Perspectives 29, Spring 1981, vol. 8, no. 2, p. 42.

60. See Latin American Regional Report (London), 27 Nov 1981.

61. See NACLA, Target Nicaragua, 1982.

62. Ibid.

63. As advocated by the extreme right wing Heritage foundation in its Newsletter of March 8, 1982.

64. Quoted in Deere, op. cit.

65. Cf Wheelock speech Intercontinental Press, op. cit.

66. What the present administration ..., p. 84.

67. Cordoba Rivas, Mimeo, Managua, May 1982.

68. This and other documents are reproduced in Carmejo and Murphy, The Nicaraguan Revolution (New York 1979).

69. On the general question of Sandinism and democratism see Sobre la problematica actual, pp. 118–170.

70. Cf. Report of the Centro Historic Centroamericano, Boletin (Managua) for October 1981.

71. As a general introduction see El papel de las organizacionas de masas en la revolucion (Managua 1981), G. Black, Triumph of the people (London 1982), chapter 12, and La problematica actual, pp. 144–169.

72. G. Black, op. cit., p. 203.

73. The question posed by Fagen and by Kairowitz and Havens in an unpublished paper.

74. See O. Nunez, La ideologia como fuerza material y la juventud como fuerza ideologica, Estado y closes sociales (Managua 1982).

75. Some as young as nine years old, like the militant Luis Alfonso Velasquez, whose name was given to the first park built in Managua after the revolution.

76. As James Petras so bitterly pointed out.

77. See Nunez, op. cit.; and Nuestros ninos lo van a entender (Managua 1981).

78. See G. Black, op. cit.

79. On the general role of the trade unions, see for example, the CST’s submission to the Unity Conference, 1981 debe encontrar una clase obrera unida (Managua, December 1981), the pamphlet Los trabajadores Sandinistas y las tareas del momento (Managua 1980) and the mimeoed education document from the CST (1981) called Elpapel de los sindicatos, among many others.

80. See the speech of C. Nunez in Los trabajadores Sandinistas, p. 10.

81. See Wheelock, Marco estrategico de la reforma agraria (Managua 1981).

82. T. Borge quoted in G. Black, op. cit., p. 281.

83. See Wheelock, Marco estrategico.

84. That activity ranges from constant attacks across the frontier, the murder of teachers and others in isolated communities, through a huge propaganda campaign which includes numbers of newly arisen evangelical sects all of which seem to find Reagan very close to God, to the use of the question of the indigenous peoples against the Sandinistas.

85. On the documents of the split see Garcia Marquez: Los Sandinistas (Bogota 1980).

86. Black, Weber and Hermione Harris in Two years of revolution in Nicaragua, in Race & Class, summer 1981, argue that there is constant internal debate.

87. See his speeches, which are extraordinarily moving in La revolucion sandinista (Mexico 1981).

88. The education campaign is described in detail by J. Bevan and G. Black, The Loss of Fear, WUS (London 1981).

89. J. Wheelock in Intercontinental Press, op. cit.

90. As J. Castanada shows in his Nicaragua: las contradicciones de la revolucion (Mexico 1980).

91. See the Heritage Foundation’s Newsletter quoted above and Cordoba Rivas 1982 Economic Report.

92. The May Day Speeches are reproduced in Patria Libre (Managua, June 1982).

93. Daniel Ortega in his speech at Masaya, July 19th, 1982, fully reported in Barricada, July 20th.

94. The problem of the Miskito Indians of the Atlantic Coast is a difficult one, and its history too complex to go into here. Isolated from Managua, they grew up under the tutelage of British colonialism, an influence reinforced by the Moravian church. Their national identity, their claim to some form of autonomy, posed a serious threat to national integration – and the Sandinistas by their own recognition, handled the problem badly at first. Unfortunately, this gave the US the opportunity to move and use the Miskitos against the Sandinistas. Haig’s claim of massacres of Miskitos are nonsense – but they were moved from the border to settlements fifty miles into Nicaragua. The FSLN argue, with considerable reason, that it was for their own safety. A sensitive account of the issue is in What the present administration ...

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