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Nigel Harris

A Nicaragua diary

(September 1979)

From Socialist Worker, 29 September 1979.
Reprinted in Chris Harman (ed.), In the Heat of the Struggle, London 1993,pp-184-185.
Transcribed & marked up Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IT STARTED in the airport in Mexico City.

A youth and a girl in black berets and tee-shirts emblazoned ‘Free Nicaragua’ were playing tapes of revolutionary songs and speeches.

All through the flight it continued.

The excitement rose in waves. Returning exiles singing and cries of the Sandinista slogan ‘A free country or death!’

When the air hostess began to announce ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to land at Sandino Airport, Managua, in Free Nicaragua,’ then the shouts and cheers and clapping became deafening.

And there they were, the compañeros.

In jungle green, girls with machine guns and unshaven young men, slouching round the air terminal and grinning as we streamed out of the aircraft to the sound of the hymns of the revolution. And everyone was hugging and weeping and kissing and cheering: ‘Long live Free Nicaragua!’ So it was throughout that time.

For it is the festival of the Nicaragua revolution.

The savageries of the Somoza regime are still there to be seen. The many little crosses along the side of the road. The pathetic red and black bandanas tied to a lamp-post to mark where a compañero fell. The gutted shells of factories, the houses splattered with innumerable bullet holes. The walls of a cottage that enclose only a rain-filled bomb crater.

Each day, the newspapers are filled with the photographs of those still missing, most of them in their early teens, with appeals from parents for any news at all. The news columns still record the discovery of unmarked graves and unidentified corpses. But the irrepressible bubbling excitement of victory hides the tragedies.

’It was hard, Señor,’ the old market woman, selling bananas, says. ‘It was hard – but now we have hope, and then we didn’t.’ The compañeros are everywhere: shy teenagers in jungle green or tattered cast-offs, in US Marine tee-shirts and ‘Love me, baby’ hats – but all with automatics over their shoulders and pistols in their belts.

And they grin and giggle, and demand to have their photographs taken, for now what they do is history and needs recording. ‘We are going to build a new world,’ says one older man gravely, ‘lifting ourselves out of the ruins.’

What sort of revolution?

WHAT SORT of revolution is it in Nicaragua?

The Sandinistas (FSLN) are a coalition of forces, including some of the sons and daughters of the employers and landowners. They were united by the single aim of destroying Somoza’s gangsters.

The core of the leadership was unofficially united by what they call ‘Marxism-Leninism,’ which, as so often, seems to amount to little more than a recognition that the existing social order must be overthrown by violence.

The FSLN showed extraordinary audacity and tenacity in action. Their example evoked from the mass of the population an equally extraordinary spontaneous courage – local militia sprang up, and the barrios were organised with committees to maintain food, medical and rebuilding activities.

The politics did not include a revolutionary transformation in the basis of Nicaragua – the seizure of the land of the big farmers by the small peasants and landless labourers, the seizure of the factories by the workers (although there were two general strikes of protest at various stages).

In fact, in some areas the peasants did seize land. But the Sandinistas persuaded them to leave, with the promise of getting land when the farms of Somoza and his supporters were expropriated.

By taking over the property of Somoza, his family and friends, the new government acquired about half the country’s land and possibly 60 percent of its industry. The government has also nationalised local banks (and restricted foreign banks to external transactions) and foreign trade.

But the problems began immediately. For example, the government decreed that workers should be paid back wages for June and July (when fighting paralysed business).

Private business is already on the edge of bankruptcy after the war, so the protests have been vigorous, and most employers are probably not paying the back pay.

Unlike both Cuba and Portugal, the revolution in Nicaragua reached down much deeper into society in fighting a peculiarly savage war.

But nonetheless the contradictions are extreme. Only the politics of permanent revolution – moving on from the conquest of state power to workers and peasants conquering the means of exploitation – could resolve the contradictions.

There is no evidence that such matters are part of the calculations of the FSLN leadership. They have explicitly denied any intention of exporting revolution, spreading its politics well beyond the boundaries of Nicaragua. And they are carefully restricting any spontaneous process of change at home lest that set off what they see as grave danger in the midst of the fiesta. The ultimate fate of the revolution hangs in the balance.

The prospects for socialism – as opposed to a new form of state capitalism – seem, at the moment, limited.

But that should in no way affect our rejoicing at what the Nicaraguans have achieved, our commitment to defend their victory, to organise solidarity support, and to watch carefully in order to react strongly if there is any attempt from Washington or its satellites to intervene.

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