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The Nicaraguan Revolution (Spanish: Revolución Nicaragüense or Revolución Popular Sandinista) encompassed the rising opposition to the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s, the violent campaign led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to oust the dictatorship in 1978–79, the subsequent efforts of the FSLN to govern Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990,  and the Contra War, which was waged between the FSLN-led government of Nicaragua and the United States-backed Contras from 1981–1990. The revolution marked a significant period in the history of Nicaragua and revealed the country as one of the major proxy war battlegrounds of the Cold War, attracting much international attention.
FSLN military victory in 1979
- Overthrow of Somoza government in 1979
- Insurgency of the Contras
- FSLN junta led by Daniel Ortega take power of Nicaragua in 1981 
- Electoral victory of FSLN in 1984
- Electoral victory of the National Opposition Union in 1990
1978–79: 10,000 total killed 
The initial overthrow of the Somoza regime in 1978–79 was a bloody affair, and the Contra War of the 1980s took the lives of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans and was the subject of fierce international debate. During the 1980s, both the FSLN (a leftist collection of political parties) and the Contras (a rightist collection of counter-revolutionary groups) received large amounts of aid from the Cold War superpowers (respectively, the Soviet Union and the United States).
Peace process started with Sapoá Accords in 1988 and the Contra War ended after the signing of the Tela Accord in 1989 and the demobilization of the FSLN and Contra armies.  A second election in 1990 resulted in the election of a majority of anti-Sandinista parties and the FSLN handing over power.
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Contra, member of a counterrevolutionary force that sought to overthrow Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista government. The original contras had been National Guardsmen during the regime of Anastasio Somoza (see Somoza family). The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency played a key role in training and funding the group, whose tactics were decried by the international human-rights community. In 1984 the U.S. Congress banned military aid to the contras the efforts of the administration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan to circumvent the ban led to the Iran-Contra Affair. A general peace in the region was negotiated by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sánchez, and in 1990 Nicaraguan president Violeta Chamorro negotiated the contras’ demobilization. See also Daniel Ortega.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Maren Goldberg, Assistant Editor.
The contra war in Nicaragua - Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky's account of the US-backed “contra” counter-insurgency in Nicaragua against the left-wing government brought to power on the back of a popular mass movement from below.
It wasn't just the events in El Salvador that were ignored by the mainstream US media during the 1970s. In the ten years prior to the overthrow of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, US television - all networks - devoted exactly one hour to Nicaragua, and that was entirely on the Managua earthquake of 1972.
From 1960 through 1978, the New York Times had three editorials on Nicaragua. It's not that nothing was happening there - it's just that whatever was happening was unremarkable. Nicaragua was of no concern at all, as long as Somoza's tyrannical rule wasn't challenged.
When his rule was challenged, by the [popular, left-wing] Sandinistas in the late 1970s, the US first tried to institute what was called "Somocismo [Somoza-ism] without Somoza" - that is, the whole corrupt system intact, but with somebody else at the top. That didn't work, so President Carter tried to maintain Somoza's National Guard as a base for US power.
The National Guard had always been remarkably brutal and sadistic. By June 1979, it was carrying out massive atrocities in the war against the Sandinistas, bombing residential neighbourhoods in Managua, killing tens of thousands of people. At that point, the US ambassador sent a cable to the White House saying it would be "ill-advised" to tell the Guard to call off the bombing, because that might interfere with the policy of keeping them in power and the Sandinistas out.
Our ambassador to the Organisation of American States also spoke in favour of "Somocismo without Somoza," but the OAS rejected the suggestion flat out. A few days later, Somoza flew off to Miami with what was left of the Nicaraguan national treasury, and the Guard collapsed.
The Carter administration flew Guard commanders out of the country in planes with Red Cross markings (a war crime), and began to reconstitute the Guard on Nicaragua's borders. They also used Argentina as a proxy. (At that time, Argentina was under the rule of neo-Nazi generals, but they took a little time off from torturing and murdering their own population to help re-establish the Guard - soon to be renamed the contras, or "freedom fighters.")
Ronald Reagan used them to launch a large-scale terrorist war against Nicaragua, combined with economic warfare that was even more lethal. We also intimidated other countries so they wouldn't send aid either.
And yet, despite astronomical levels of military support, the United States failed to create a viable military force in Nicaragua. That's quite remarkable, if you think about it. No real guerrillas anywhere in the world have ever had resources even remotely like what the United States gave the contras. You could probably start a guerrilla insurgency in mountain regions of the US with comparable funding.
Why did the US go to such lengths in Nicaragua? The international development organisation Oxfam explained the real reasons, stating that, from its experience of working in 76 developing countries, "Nicaragua was. exceptional in the strength of that government's commitment. to improving the condition of the people and encouraging their active participation in the development process."
Of the four Central American countries where Oxfam had a significant presence (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua), only in Nicaragua was there a substantial effort to address inequities in land ownership and to extend health, educational and agricultural services to poor peasant families.
Other agencies told a similar story. In the early 1980s, the World Bank called its projects "extraordinarily successful in Nicaragua in some sectors, better than anywhere else in the world." In 1983, The Inter-American Development Bank concluded that "Nicaragua has made noteworthy progress in the social sector, which is laying the basis for long-term socio-economic development."
The success of the Sandinista reforms terrified US planners. They were aware that - as José Figueres, the father of Costa Rican democracy, put it - "for the first time, Nicaragua has a government that cares for its people." (Although Figueres was the leading democratic figure in Central America for forty years, his unacceptable insights into the real world were completely censored from the US media.)
The hatred that was elicited by the Sandinistas for trying to direct resources to the poor (and even succeeding at it) was truly wondrous to behold. Just about all US policymakers shared it, and it reached virtual frenzy.
Back in 1981, a State Department insider boasted that we would "turn Nicaragua into the Albania of Central America" - that is, poor, isolated and politically radical - so that the Sandinista dream of creating a new, more exemplary political model for Latin America would be in ruins.
George Shultz called the Sandinistas a "cancer, right here on our land mass," that has to be destroyed. At the other end of the political spectrum, leading Senate liberal Alan Cranston said that if it turned out not to be possible to destroy the Sandinistas, then we'd just have to let them "fester in [their] own juices."
So the US launched a three-fold attack against Nicaragua. First, we exerted extreme pressure to compel the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to terminate all projects and assistance.
Second, we launched the contra war along with an illegal economic war to terminate what Oxfam rightly called "the threat of a good example." The contras' vicious terrorist attacks against "soft targets" under US orders did help, along with the boycott, to end any hope of economic development and social reform. US terror ensured that Nicaragua couldn't demobilise its army and divert its pitifully poor and limited resources to reconstructing the ruins that were left by the US-backed dictators and Reaganite crimes. The contras were even funded by the US selling arms to Iran, in what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
One of the most respected Central America correspondents, Julia Preston (who was then working for the Boston Globe), reported that "Administration officials said they are content to see the contras debilitate the Sandinistas by forcing them to divert scarce resources toward the war and away from social programs." That's crucial, since the social programs were at the heart of the good example that might have infected other countries in the region and eroded the American system of [much higher-grade] exploitation and robbery.
We even refused to send disaster relief. After the 1972 earthquake, the US sent an enormous amount of aid to Nicaragua, most of which was stolen by our buddy Somoza. In October 1988, an even worse natural disaster struck Nicaragua - Hurricane Joan. We didn't send a penny for that, because if we had, it would probably have gotten to the people, not just into the pockets of some rich thug. We also pressured our allies to send very little aid.
This devastating hurricane, with its welcome prospects of mass starvation and long-term ecological damage, reinforced our efforts. We wanted Nicaraguans to starve so we could accuse the Sandinistas of economic mismanagement. Because they weren't under our control, Nicaraguans had to suffer and die.
Third, we used diplomatic fakery to crush Nicaragua. As Tony Avirgan wrote in the Costa Rican journal Mesoamerica, "the Sandinistas fell for a scam perpetrated by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias and the other Central American Presidents, which cost them the February  elections."
For Nicaragua, the peace plan of August 1987 was a good deal, Avrigan wrote: they would move the scheduled national elections forward by a few months and allow international observation, as they had in 1984, "in exchange for having the contras demobilised and the war brought to an end. " The Nicaraguan government did what it was required to do under the peace plan, but no one else paid the slightest attention to it.
Arias, the White House and Congress never had the slightest intention of implementing any aspect of the plan. The US virtually tripled CIA supply flights to the contras. Within a couple of months the peace plan was totally dead.
As the election campaign opened, the US made it clear that the embargo that was strangling the country and the contra terror would continue if the Sandinistas won the election. You have to be some kind of Nazi or unreconstructed Stalinist to regard an election conducted under such conditions as free and fair - and south of the border, few succumbed to such delusions.
If anything like that were ever done by our enemies. I leave the media reaction to your imagination. The amazing part of it was that the Sandinistas still got 40% of the vote, while New York Times headlines proclaimed that Americans were "United in Joy" over this "Victory for US Fair Play."
US achievements in Central America in the past fifteen years are a major tragedy, not just because of the appalling human cost, but because a decade ago there were prospects for real progress towards meaningful democracy and meeting human needs, with early successes in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
These efforts might have worked and might have taught useful lessons to others plagued with similar problems - which, of course, was exactly what US planners feared. The threat has been successfully aborted, perhaps forever.
Chomsky is of course an American citizen, and so “we” and “our” refers to the US. The article has been edited slightly by libcom – US to UK spellings and a few small details have been added for the reader new to the topic.
Why Is Nicaragua’s Homicide Rate So Far Below That of Its Central American Neighbors?
February 2, 2018
An activist holds a child as she takes part in a march during International Women's Day in Managua, Nicaragua, on March 8, 2016. (Reuters /Oswaldo Rivas)
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I came to Nicaragua and cried for El Salvador. That was the surprising thought gripping me as I stood, holding back tears, on a nameless dirt road in barrio Augusto César Sandino in the capital of Managua. There was no car traffic on that warm December night, and a couple of families, all wearing shorts, were enjoying the breeze while sitting in plastic white lawn chairs in front of the tin walls (lamina) of their homes.
Their conversations about family and money, and their laughter, were loud—a necessity, given the Christian rock band booming from behind the painted pink lamina of the shack housing a standing-room-only Pentecostal church. On the other side of the street, children popping pre-Christmas firecrackers scared skinny dogs and neighbors in front of a shack where someone was burning garbage. I was standing next to a group of 20-something homies gathered with a few veteranos of the barrio who were smoking pot and celebrating a newborn.
“To the cops, any one of us standing here is a delincuente,” complained Natanael Huxson Herrera, a 21-year-old born and raised in a lamina shack on a part of the road where the smell of sewage was overwhelming.
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“I mean, I could just be standing here with a jaiña, doing nothing but talking, and they’ll come down here and beat the shit out of us, arrest us and then take us to jail,” Herrera said.
“Jaiña?” I asked, thinking the “ñ” in this unusual word marked it as one of the countless indigenous terms still peppering the Nicaraguan language.
“Jaiña, dude. You know. Mujer,” he said, before further schooling his US journalist interlocutor with some Nica English: “Gwoman.”
“You mean jaina, no?” I asked, trying to clarify whether the term he used was the word for “woman” or “girlfriend” in calo, a once secret, in-group lingo first developed by Roma peoples, especially those involved in criminal activity, in the ghettos of 16th-century Spain. Following the Conquista, youth and gangs in what would become the countries of the New World developed their own calo variants, including the Mexican Spanglish many of us used back home in early 1980s California.
Herrera and most of the young homies I talked to were clueless as to the etymology, as well as the history that brought jaina—and calo—from California prisons in the 1970s to young people in LA, San Jose, San Francisco, and other cities in the 1980s. That was before young deportees, including gang members, introduced the term to the tens of thousands of young Central American men who then went on to make calo the lingua franca of extremely violent gangs throughout the northern part of the region following the end of the bloody wars of those years.
“No. It’s jaiña,” he protested. Orale pues, homie. You guys have adopted and adjusted the lingo to your language. So be it, I thought.
“He’s right about the cops,” chimed in Alvaro (who declined to give his last name), a 45-year-old veterano who lived nearby. “They see those of us of the Manjol like garbage.”
&ldquoJust being here,&rdquo said Alvaro, &ldquomakes us criminals.&rdquo
“Manjol. That,” he said, pointing at the round, 12-inch-thick block of steel encrusted in the dirt like the dusty remnant of some ancient Mayan, Otomi, or other Mesoamerican civilization in the pre-Colombian era. Alvaro said that the young people’s tradition of hanging around the sewage manhole dates back to the ’90s, when hard-core gangs like the Comemuertos (eaters of the dead) engaged in killing sprees resembling those still devastating Nicaragua’s neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador.
“Just being here,” said Alvaro, “makes us criminals.”
The manhole scene smells familiar, but also different. The last time I noticed the manholes of Managua barrios like Augusto César Sandino was in the late ’80s, when most of them were open, their covers stolen by those who sold the steel to survive during the bloody Contra war and economic blockade with which the United States punished the revolutionary Sandinista government.
“This is a zona roja [a red zone, prohibited place], being in the Manjol. Our families don’t support us, the community sees us like [we’re] nothing, like we’re the sewage draining with water beneath the Manjol.”
Alvaro’s language of the underdog also had a familiar ring, as did the cadences of rebellious marginality I’d heard in tin shacks and crowded apartments from San Salvador to LA’s Pico Union neighborhood.
“The police can come and arrest us any minute, like in Somoza years,” Alvaro said, referring to the brutal dictator overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979. “They [the ruling Sandinistas] forget that it was the youth who overthrew Somoza. They forget that they themselves were persecuted by police. Chavalos [kids] took on revolution.”
Alvaro and the other men had legitimate fears about the police harassing them, concerns articulated in the somewhat familiar language of California and Central American rebels of my younger days. But the comparison to the bloody era when Somoza’s Guardia Civil killed thousands didn’t feel accurate. Something about it smelled off to my US-Salvadoran olfato.
As bad as it is here in Managua, the smell of the morgues and mass graves I visited in El Salvador assault one&rsquos psyche and gut far more powerfully.
Yes, the popping of firecrackers still startled for a moment, just as it has through decades of visits to ultra-violent El Salvador. The sewer beneath the covered manhole smells as vile as any in El Salvador, and the youthful anger toward abusive cops feels as familiar as the rage found in Salvadoran towns like Soyapango, but there is a colossal difference: As bad as it is here in Managua, the smell of the morgues and mass graves I visited a couple of years ago in El Salvador assault one’s psyche and gut far more powerfully than the smell of the worst sewer in Nicaragua, or just about anywhere else. Absent here are the relentless firing of the omnipresent guns still triggering trauma in the barrios and rural towns throughout my parents’ homeland, one of the most violent places on earth, a place where postwar peace never really came, as it did to Nicaragua, which is one of the hemisphere’s least homicidal places. While police and military in El Salvador and Honduras have been implicated and prosecuted for death-squad killings of hundreds of men between the ages of Herrera and Alvaro, Nicaragua’s death squads disappeared decades ago.
Nicaragua’s unusual peace juts out of the chronically violent Central American landscape like one of the many massive volcanoes whose ash and minerals feed the flora and fauna of this lush land.
Nicaragua&rsquos homicide rate is an astonishingly low 6 per 100,000, half that of peaceful and richer Costa Rica.
Costa Rica, the “Switzerland of Central America,” has a homicide rate of 12 per 100,000. Guatemala, the safest of the countries of what’s known as the “Northern Triangle,” has a homicide rate of 26 per 100,000. Honduras’s rate is 43 per 100,000, while El Salvador’s is a staggering 60 per 100,000, which ranks alongside those of Syria and other war-ravaged countries. Nicaragua’s? An astonishingly low 6 per 100,000, half that of peaceful and richer Costa Rica.
Standing around the manhole with the young homies, hearing Alvaro’s nostalgia about the revolutionary era in Central America, my gut twisted, reminding me of how, in terms of trauma and violence, my parents’ homeland has not felt or known anything like the peace of Nicaragua—for more than 40 years.
T he reasons Nicaragua defies the near-universal correlation between poverty, inequality, and violence are complex. As the second-poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti, Nicaragua has hardly escaped the economic hardship that ravages much of the region. Some 39 percent of Nicaraguans live in poverty, according to the International Foundation for Global Economic Challenges.
And Nicaragua’s government has hardly been immune to the problems of other governments in the region: Nicaragua ranks higher than either El Salvador or Honduras on the 2016 corruption indexes of Transparency International. The concentration of power by President Daniel Ortega and his vice president and wife has alienated many of the original Sandinista leaders and regularly drawn criticism from the domestic and international community. The early unity and idealism of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has long since been tattered by internal divisions and scandals.
Despite the current corruption, the Sandinista revolution did manage to push through reforms that have benefited society.
Yet despite all that, and despite the bloody counterrevolutionary war sustained by Washington in the 1980s, the revolution did, in fact, manage to push through reforms that have benefited Nicaraguan society, a fact underscored by even the most pro-US global institutions. A 2017 report by the World Bank declared that even though “armed conflict, natural disasters and economic mismanagement characterized the 1970s and 1980s,” Nicaragua has “undergone a solid economic recovery from a very low base.” Nicaragua is the country that made the greatest gains in the overall happiness of its population.
Of all the reforms initiated during the revolution, two stand out: One is Nicaragua’s rejection of US exports—specifically, the US-bred criminal gangs such as the Maras, along with the zero-tolerance US-style policing models that exacerbated their violence. A 2016 report by the Brookings Institution concluded that years of mano dura (heavy-handed) policing in El Salvador and Honduras had only served to exponentially enhance the prison gangs’ “projection of power”—their ability to consistently stage economic stoppages, control entire neighborhoods, and murder at will. Nicaragua has over 100 youth gangs, according to a study by Casa Esperanza, a Managua-based social-service agency. But these gangs have a fundamentally different culture from those of the more violent and homicidal Mara culture of similar groups in the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Also, mass migration to and from Nicaragua is now centered in Florida, not California, the birthplace of the Maras.
The second reason is the Sandinista revolution itself. Nicaragua is less homicidal than its neighbors in no small part because of the ways in which the revolution enabled the then youthful revolutionary leaders and subsequent non-Sandinista governments to experiment with and then institutionalize things like gun control, alternative policing models, and other policies and social programs, especially ones focused on altering Nicaraguan masculinity in ways first pushed by revolutionary Sandinista women.
&ldquoThe reforms to the police remain one of the most important and lasting legacies of the revolution, something we&rsquore very proud of.&rdquo &mdashArgentina Martínez, Save the Children
“ T he revolution didn’t just radically alter policing structures,” said Argentina Martínez, country director of the Nicaragua office of Save the Children. “It also altered consciousness. That consciousness and the reforms to the police remain one of the most important and lasting legacies of the revolution, something we’re very proud of.” Something else—something she “can’t find the word for” she said—had disappeared. “But it will come to me,” she added, as we drank coffee in her office located in the posh but heavily walled and heavily guarded El Carmen neighborhood STC shares with several members of the Ortega family.
“Success in fostering a culture of nonviolence, regardless of ideology or government in power,” she said, “can’t be brought about by the police or any institution or political party alone. It has to bring in many different actors.” In the case of Nicaragua, Martínez said, that integrated work included “family, organized community, acting in coordination with police, the ministry of family, and other state institutions.”
Community and religious organizations, working hand-in-hand with government agencies, provide a battery of innovative, integrated services that include things like community committees for the prevention of crime, volunteer police, regular police training to respect human rights, programs for parents and other caregivers that provide alternatives for at-risk youth, and employment training, among others. Also included are classes that have introduced Nicaraguan men to newer, less-violent ways to be a man.
As important as the close collaboration between communities and the state, said Martínez, was envisioning and then creating alternatives to the repressive policing model of the Somoza dictatorship.
“Just being young in the 1970s was a crime,” said Martínez, who joined the revolution in 1979, the year it came to power, and later became a member of the FSLN (she is not currently a member).
“The Guardia [Civil] considered all young people suspect. So, we went to poetry and to revolution. Because of this, we knew all too well the effects of institutional violence toward young people—and we were determined not to repeat it.”
&ldquoThe difference today is not just the lessening of fear, but the absence of terror, like what many of us grew up with.&rdquo &mdashArgentina Martínez
Some of her worst memories of the war include scenes involving her young comrades—and family. “The Guardia would come to barrio sectors and conduct house-to-house searches with full military force. They would come to people’s houses, put you against the wall, and look to see if your hands had signs of “subversive activity”—paint or markers from doing graffiti or scratches or other signs you’d been involved in something. They also punished you if they found you had poetry and other ‘subversive’ literature. The Guardia came to my parent’s house in search of my brother. Telling him ‘I won’t let them come in,’ mom locked him in the bathroom. They didn’t find him, but our house was searched and they interrogated us. It was….” She paused for a second. “Ah!” she exclaimed, “I remember the word I wanted to use earlier, the word that described what is missing in the current climate of Nicaragua: terror. That’s the word—terror. The difference today is not just the lessening of fear, but the absence of terror, like what many of us grew up with.”
I listened to Martínez describe the terror of the Nicaraguan past and my neck and jaw muscles tightened: reminders of the Salvadoran present, its foreseeable future, as well as its bloody past.
A fter the end of the Central American wars, in the early 1990s, the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador implemented zero-tolerance police reform. With pressure on these countries from the US government, consultants got million-dollar contracts to implement the programs (former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani would eventually get one). For its part, Nicaragua found alternatives to what many consider the Frankenstein’s monster of violence and policing in Central America: mano dura policies in sentencing and imprisonment, which gave police enormous discretion in persecuting, jailing, and abusing suspected members.
“Instead of mano dura,” said Skarlleth Martínez (no relation to Argentina Martínez), a researcher in the democratic security program of the Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP), a think tank based in Managua, “Nicaragua chose a policing model that emphasized prevention, one that used the social fabric to involve the population in matters of security.”
Aiding the process, said Martínez, were nongovernmental organizations that rose out of the revolution like the Center for Prevention of Violence (CEPREV), which “played a historic role that supplemented community-based policing with several programs.” Many of these organizations were led by revolutionary women like CEPREV’s Monica Zalaquett, who understood the need to fundamentally alter Nicaraguan masculinity.
Today’s anti-violence forces find themselves navigating from an oppositional perspective, acknowledging the anti-violence gains while also being vigilant about ominous recent trends. Mary Ellsberg, founding director of the Global Women’s Institute of George Washington University, lived in Nicaragua from 1980 to 1998 and was a member of the Nicaraguan Network of Women against Violence in the 1990s. She is now finalizing a study about sexual and domestic violence in Nicaragua, a continuation of work she did 20 years ago. According to Ellsberg, “Women activists are very concerned by the closure of government programs to prevent violence against women and a general distancing of government from the women’s organizations that have done so much to help reduce crime, especially violence against women. These changes could lead to reversals of the great gains made over the last two decades.”
Such concerns, said, Skarlleth Martínez, make coordinated, continuing efforts ever more urgent. “More than anything,” said Martínez, “the collaboration between the police and the NGOs was the key to success in preventing the growth of Maras in Nicaragua. This worked well—until recently.”
Today&rsquos anti-violence forces acknowledge the gains while being vigilant about ominous recent trends, like Nicaragua&rsquos skyrocketing rates of domestic violence and rape.
Martínez and others remain on alert about the effects of the Sandinista government’s decision, around 2007, to slow and, in many cases, completely end the police collaborations with many NGOs she believes this threatens Nicaragua’s ability to keep the country’s homicide rates low. When asked, “How much do you think conflicts and violence in the country have increased in the country in the last six months?” in a 2017 IEEPP study of Nicaraguan perceptions of political violence and citizen security, almost half of those polled responded “much.”
Martínez also expressed “concern” about trends—especially with respect to corruption of and repression by the police and military—that, she fears, may “return Nicaragua to a time when the line between police and political party are blurred.” To support her claim, Martínez cited reports that Sandinista party flags were being “incorporated into trainings of officials.” (Police and other government officials contacted for this article declined to comment.)
Martínez and others are also alarmed by recent incidents of police and military violence, including at marches last November and December, in which police shock units appear to have repressed and detained marchers. Even more disturbing, critics say, was a massacre in rural Nicaragua last November. Six people, including two adolescents, were killed by the military, which, according to domestic and international critics, has yet to sufficiently clarify the circumstances. The children’s mother has also called for an investigation of the killing and then burial in a mass grave of the children, their father, and three colleagues. Witnesses said the father and his colleagues, whom authorities suspected of being involved in illicit activities, got into a shootout with the military.
B ack in Barrio Sandino, several homies had gathered in front of the rock-strewn front lawn of Bayardo Farga, a local OG, to talk about 20-something Julio Orozco’s recent run-in with police.
“What happened?” asked a tattooed Farga, while watching his son and daughter play with their puppy. Orozco and several homies had gathered around on the lawn.
“I was standing in front of a friend’s house,” said Orozco, pointing toward an area near the statue of Augusto César Sandino. “We were talking and chilling out with some friends. Somebody had a joint, but that was it. Suddenly these cops swoop down on us.”
“So what did you do?” asked Farga, who since leaving gang life has turned his colorful green-and-pink kiddie-poster plastered lamina home into a place for current and former gang youth to gather and talk—“a place where we try to change minds,” Farga calls it.
His kids stopped their playing when they noted the worried look on their father’s face. Farga had advised Orozco to leave his gang.
Orozco paused. Tears of anger filled his eyes. “This small police woman comes over and starts grabbing me. I said, ‘Hey, I’m not doing anything, What are you doing?’ She just said ‘Shut up!’ and started kicking me. Three times! Then she started hitting me more!”
Farga put his hand on Orozco’s shoulder, clearly hoping that the incident with the cop hadn’t triggered Orozco’s macho button to the point of ruining months of counseling, training, and other services he and other had given him. Farga, a popular person who neighbors still call by his gang name, “Pacha,” felt Orozco’s plight deeply, knowing himself the enormous willpower it takes to leave a life in which one gains power by robbing, shooting, stabbing, and harassing people. He also knew that bad policing, like bad fathering, can plunge young men into deep pools of anger that can have fatal consequences.
“My body reacted. I wanted to hit her back. I wanted to hurt her real bad,” said Orozco. “But you know what?”
“No, what?” asked a nervous Farga.
“Even though the bruises still hurt, even though all the police have the problem of being violent, I didn’t do anything—and I won’t.”
”Good for you,” Farga said, the tightness on his face dissipating like morning fog.
“At least the cops also have a good focus on young people, helping parents, helping young people,” said Orozco. “They should keep doing that instead of treating us like animals. That other shit only gets you pissed off and doesn’t work.”
Looking northward, toward the still-bloodstained landscape of El Salvador, I silently agreed, holding back the tears.
Roberto Lovato Twitter Roberto Lovato is the author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins), a New York Times “Editor’s Choice,” which the paper hailed as a “groundbreaking memoir.” Lovato is also an educator, journalist, and writer based at The Writers Grotto in San Francisco.
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Nicaragua’s former ‘dictator’ buried in Miami
An ex-president of Nicaragua, or ex-dictator — depending on whom you ask — is buried in Miami. Not in Nicaragua or in Paraguay, where he was assassinated, but in Miami, home of the largest Nicaraguan population in the nation, according to the 2010 Census.
Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Nicaragua’s de-facto ruler from 1967-1979, is buried alongside his wife in a private mausoleum in Caballero Rivero Woodlawn Park North Cemetery and Mausoleum in Little Havana.
Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s and wife Hope Portocarrero’s private mausoleum. Photo credits: Elizabeth Soza
Many Nicaraguan residents of Sweetwater, also known as Little Managua, are unaware that the man who is responsible for them fleeing their homeland rests about 7 miles away.
“As a first generation American, this feels like an insult, because I cannot believe the U.S. would allow that man to seek refuge in his death here,” said Samantha Ortiz, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua and Cuba.
Edwin Ramirez, a 24-year old Nicaraguan-American was shocked when told about Somoza’s burial here. His father was forced to serve in the Sandinistas, and his uncles on his mother’s side fled when they were called on to serve in the military at the height of the country’s civil war in the 1970s.
“Why is he here?” he said. “This man is the reason why my parents fled Nicaragua.”
Nicaragua, nicknamed “the land of lakes and volcanoes” for its beauty, has suffered a shaky history since the control of the Spaniards in the 16th century. However, the country began a dramatic economic and political change when the Somoza family seized power in the 1930s.
Anastasio Somoza Garcia, the family patriarch, rose through the ranks of the Guardia Nacional (National Guard), a private army organized by the U.S. Marines. After a military coup, he took the presidency, beginning a 40-year family reign.
In 1961, a student-led group at the University of Leon formed La Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN The Sandinista National Liberation Front). The group, named after Augusto Sandino, a rebel assassinated by Somoza Garcia, gained traction with Nicaraguans when the Somoza’s embezzled funds meant to provide relief after the 1972 earthquake in the country’s capital, Managua.
In 1979, the FSLN overthrew Somoza Debayle and sent him into exile. Daniel Ortega, a member of the group, assumed the presidency until 1990 and later again in 2006.
While being forced out of the country, Somoza Debayle warned Nicaraguans the FSLN would be worse for the country than his family was.
Today, it could be argued that Somoza Debayle’s statement was correct.
“I knew Daniel Ortega when he was younger,” Francisco Rivas said in Spanish. Like many Nicaraguans, Rivas fled to Miami in the 1980s, escaped through the mountains, crossed neighboring countries and was granted political asylum by the United States during Reagan’s administration.
“Even when [Ortega] was younger, he was just as power hungry as he is now,” he said.
Somoza Debayle was assassinated in Paraguay a year after his exile. His wife, Hope Portocarrero, who was born in Tampa, remarried after his death. How his body came to be buried in Miami, next to her despite her remarriage, remains a mystery.
When told about it, Rivas was stone-faced.
“Only in death is that man allowed to touch American soil,” he said.
“He loved his country” is engraved on Somoza Debayle’s grave. Photo credits: Elizabeth Soza.
A Caballero Rivero Woodlawn Park North Cemetery and Mausoleum spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
Today, almost 40 years later, the FSLN still has control of the country. Recent events perpetuated by Ortega has created unrest in Nicaragua and have been escalating. Another war seems imminent.
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Anastasio Somoza, in full Anastasio Somoza García, byname Tacho, (born Feb. 1, 1896, San Marcos, Nicaragua—died Sept. 29, 1956, Ancón, Panama Canal Zone), soldier-politician who was dictator of Nicaragua for 20 years. Preferring the use of patronage and bribery to violence, he established a family dynasty in which he was succeeded by his son Luis Somoza Debayle as president (1956–63) and by another son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, as head of the Guardia Nacional and then as president (1967–72, 1974–79).
The son of a wealthy coffee planter, Somoza was educated in Nicaragua and the United States. By marrying the daughter of a prominent Nicaraguan family, he ensured himself a secure political career. Rising quickly through the political ranks, he became head of Nicaragua’s army, the Guardia Nacional, in 1933. With the army at his disposal, three years later he deposed the elected president, his uncle Juan Bautista Sacasa, had himself “elected” president, and assumed office on Jan. 1, 1937. Although he was officially not president from 1947 to 1950, his position as commander in chief guaranteed his continuous, firm rule for two decades until his death.
Somoza fostered agriculture, livestock raising, and mineral production sponsored public works and made Nicaragua less dependent on banana income. At the same time he amassed a considerable personal fortune, exiled most of his political opponents, owned large areas of land and many businesses, and pictured himself as a paternalistic leader in charge of a benighted people.
Peter Kornbluh states of the Reagan administration's covert war, "The strategy was to force the Sandinistas to become in reality what [U.S.] administration officials called them rhetorically: aggressive abroad, repressive at home, and hostile to the United States." Predictably, when the CIA-backed "Contras" (short for "counterrevolutionaries") began to engage in sabotage in 1982—blowing up a bridge near the Honduran border—the Sandinistas reacted with repressive measures, which confirmed the Reagan administration's claims.
By 1984, the Contras numbered 15,000 and U.S. military personnel were becoming directly involved in acts of sabotage against Nicaraguan infrastructure. Also that year, Congress passed a law banning the funding of the Contras, so the Reagan administration resorted to covert funding through the illegal sale of arms to Iran, what was eventually referred to as the Iran-Contra affair. By late 1985, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health estimated that over 3,600 civilians had been killed by Contra action, with many more being kidnapped or wounded. The U.S. was also economically strangling the Sandinistas, blocking approval of their loan requests to the World Bank and, in 1985, instituting a full economic embargo.
The mid-1980s were also a time of economic crisis in Nicaragua due to Venezuela and Mexico cutting oil supply to the country, and the Sandinistas were forced to rely increasingly on the Soviets. National funding for social programs was cut and redirected toward defense (to take on the Contras). Walker asserts that Nicaraguans rallied around their government in the face of the this imperialist threat. When elections were held in 1984 and the Sandinistas captured 63% of the vote, the U.S. unsurprisingly denounced it as fraud, but it was certified as a fair election by international bodies.
Early Years and Family
Anastasio Somoza García was born on Feb. 1, 1986, in San Marcos, Nicaragua, as a member of the Nicaraguan upper-middle class. His father Anastasio Somoza Reyes served as a Conservative Party senator from the department of Carazo for eight years. In 1914, he was elected vice-secretary of the Senate. He was also a signer of the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty in 1916. His mother Julia García was from a wealthy family of coffee planters. At the age of 19, after a family scandal, Somoza Garcia was sent to live with relatives in Philadelphia, where he attended Peirce School of Business Administration (now Peirce College).
In Philadelphia, Somoza met and courted Salvadora Debayle Sacas, who had a politically well-connected family that objected to the marriage. Nevertheless, in 1919 they married in Philadelphia in a civil ceremony. They had a Catholic ceremony in Leon Cathedral when they returned to Nicaragua. They returned to Nicaragua and had a formal Catholic wedding in León Cathedral. While in León, Anastasio tried and failed at running several businesses: automobile sales, boxing promoter, meter reader for an electric company, and inspector of latrines at the Rockefeller Foundation's Sanitary Mission to Nicaragua. He even tried counterfeiting Nicaraguan currency and only avoided prison because of his family connections.
The revolutionary legacy of the Sandinistas
Today, the workers and oppressed people of the world stand together to celebrate the 36th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. This article looks at the historic accomplishments of the 1979 revolution and honors the fallen Sandinista fighters who risked and sacrificed everything to free their country.
‘A Son of a Bitch, but Our Son of a Bitch’
Beginning in 1502, Christopher Columbus and the Spanish empire invaded the land that would come to be known as Nicaragua. They massacred and enslaved the indigenous resistance and underdeveloped the economy to meet the needs of the colonizer. The Niquirano, Chorotegano, and Chontal peoples valiantly resisted the conquest. Their resistance was led by the Chiefs Nicarao and Diriangán. It is from Chief Nicarao of the Niquirano nation that Nicaragua derives its name.
The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 marked the onset of Manifest Destiny and the white supremacist stance that the Caribbean and the Americas were part of the “backyard” of the United States. Filibusters (read pirates and slavers) such as William Walker sought to turn smaller, neighboring countries into English-speaking U.S. colonies. Walker organized a mercenary invasion of the country and set himself up as dictator in 1856. The U.S. military invaded and occupied Nicaragua for decades, reorienting its economy towards the needs of big business and establishing another compliant “Banana Republic.” Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler’s summary of the true role of the U.S. military in Nicaragua and beyond is worth quoting at length, as it is still relevant eight decades later:
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
The humiliating foreign plunder inspired organized resistance, encapsulated in the popular guerrilla army of General Augusto César Sandino, who struck at the U.S. invaders wherever they could. To deal with this and future rebellions against their rule, the U.S. built a military school and trained the Nicaraguan National Guard. Anastasio Somoza Garcia—who hailed from a wealthy coffee plantation-owning family and was educated abroad in the United States—became the U.S.’s man in Nicaragua. He and his corrupt military henchmen emerged as the U.S.’s proxy rulers for the next four decades. From 1937 to 1979, the Somoza dynasty ruled over all facets of Nicaraguan politics and the economy with blood and iron. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was infamously quoted as saying that Somoza was “a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch.” This quote captures the U.S.’s neo-colonial attitude toward the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East and beyond the length of the 19th and 20th centuries and through the present day.
Carlos Fonseca: the ideological motor
The Founding of the Sandinistas and the Leadership of Carlos Fonseca
The absolute bankruptcy of the Somoza regime bred resistance across Nicaragua. Named after the Campesino (Peasant) General Sandino—who was tricked and assassinated by Somoza in 1933—the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was formed by Carlos Fonseca in 1961. The FSLN was both an urban and a rural guerrilla army that pulled together the disparate oppressed sectors of Nicaraguan society to overthrow the hated dictator.
The leadership of the FSLN studied and taught Marxism-Leninism and coordinated its efforts to confront U.S. hegemonic interests with other liberation fronts across Central American and the Caribbean. As the ideological motor of the Sandinistas, Carlos Fonseca emphasized to the future leaders of the nation the importance of reading history and studying other national liberation struggles. Many of the original guerrilla leaders received ideological and military training in Cuba before returning to spearhead the national rebellion.
Deep in the mountains or within clandestine urban foci, Fonseca sought to convert “each military combatant into a teacher of popular education.” Fonseca forged the Sandinista ideology based upon his analysis of the tactics employed by Sandino’s popular army and his study of revolution in Russian, Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere. As a student of Vladimir Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, he emphasized that “the revolution’s significance was not just in military victories but in its capacity to grow into columns of steeled combatants.” Known to his comrades as “the other Che,” Fonseca promised his enemies: “For every West Point you have, we will form a Chipotón,” in reference to large swaths of mountainous terrain under Sandinista control that were used as staging grounds for attacks against the National Guard. Former guerrilla and present Sandinista leader Omar Cabeza’s Fire from the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista makes for an excellent read for those wanting a detailed narrative of the disciplined training and enormous sense of self-sacrifice imbued within each Sandinista fighter.
Repression Breeds Resistance
In 1972, an earthquake rocked Managua killing thousands and leaving most of the city homeless. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the second son of the former dictator, was now president of Nicaragua. Even though there was a shortage of blood as a result of the natural catastrophe, Somoza sold the blood of the victims abroad, cashing in on the tragedy in the most grisly of ways. This further increased popular anger at his misrule. Fighting between the Sandinistas’ fronts and the foreign-backed National Guard raged across the country.
The Sandinistas were extremely popular and flexible. Their ability to forge alliances with Liberation Theologians and to draw recruits from an array of class backgrounds merits further study for those seeking to build an anti-capitalist organization today.
Nora Astorga training new recruits circa 1978
Nora Astorga—guerrilla and future Sandinista ambassador to the United Nations—was one such recruit. Born into a deeply Catholic upper-class family, Astorga became politicized by the intense segregation and racism she saw while visiting Washington, D.C., in the 1960’s. Though she was guaranteed a prosperous future as a banking lawyer in Somoza’s Nicaragua, she refused to take her place at the trough and traded her briefcase for olive green fatigues and an AK 47. On International Women’s Day, she formed part of a kidnapping team that made international headlines when they abducted General Reynaldo Perez Vega or “El Perro” (the Dog), a CIA operative and Somoza’s second in command. Astorga lured Vega into a trap, where he was ambushed and held so he could be exchanged for FSLN political prisoners.
After the Sandinistas took power, Astorga—like Che Guevara a generation before her—oversaw the trials of more than 7,500 National Guard ruffians as the old state was smashed. Astorga, Giaconda Belli, Arlen Siu, Dora Maria Tellez and other Sandinista women ensured that within the ranks of the fighting units, the Sandinista Revolution was not just anti-imperialist, but also anti-machista (anti-sexist).
Sergio Ramirez—leftist intellectual and future Sandinista vice-president of the nation—wrote Adios Muchachos (Goodbye Children) to capture the élan of the times. He wrote of the “incomparable ethics of the Sandinista recruits.” He wrote of a people who believed everything was possible, at a time when everybody was united as sister and brother against the dictatorship. He told a famous story of Leonel Rugama, a Sandinista student leader who was in charge of recovering funds to be used in the people’s struggle. After a bank robbery, his getaway car was a public bus. With over $20,000 in his pockets, he refused to take a taxi because he did not want “to squander” the organization’s precious resources. Rugama’s conviction was emblematic of the fighting Sandinista spirit. At a later date, when Rugama was surrounded by Somoza’s goons in a shootout, they pressed him to surrender. Yelling “Que se rinda tu madre” (Tell your mother to surrender), he fought to the end for the patria (homeland) he knew was possible. His last words became an immortal battle cry for his comrades.
On July 19, 1979, the consolidated resistance marched triumphantly into Managua to the cheers of hundreds of thousands and claimed Nicaragua free of tyranny. Nicaragua became a beacon of hope for poor people across the globe and within the heart of the Empire itself. The old state apparatus was destroyed. In its place, the masses built up their own institutions of power such as the People’s Army, the Sandinista Workers’ Confederation, the Association of Agricultural Workers, the Nicaraguan Students Union, the Federation of Health Workers, and the National Teachers’ Union among others. These were all popular institutions of the revolution that could be mobilized against counterrevolution. Challenging old property relations, the Sandinistas began to transition to a mixed economy nationalizing public services. The disgruntled old ruling elites fled the country. Many joined their bitter Cuban counterparts in Miami to lament their losses and to organize counterrevolution, in hopes of turning back the clock of history.
International volunteer, Ben Linder, assassinated in 1987 by the Contras.
The year 1980 was dedicated to eradicating illiteracy. Tens of thousands of student volunteers traveled into the countryside to offer education to neglected families. The state banned the sexual objectification of women in the media. The Sandinista spirit of internationalism and solidarity was contagious. International brigades of volunteers, from the U.S., England and around the world, traveled to Nicaragua to make their own humble contributions to the revolution in the form of building homes, bridges and other architectural projects.
The Contra War
Nicaragua was dangerous. It was proof that an organized people could overcome centuries of colonialism, exploitation and underdevelopment. In the words of Cuban poet and singer Silvio Rodriguez:
“The grass of a continent is on fire, the borders kiss and warm up to one another. … Now the eagle (the U.S.) has its biggest pain. It is hurt by Nicaragua. The eagle is hurt by love. It is hurt that a child can safely walk to school. Because now it cannot sharpen its spurs against them.”
Ronald Reagan, the personification of U.S. dominance in Central America, could not stand to see Nicaragua progress. He oversaw policies and proxy wars that hurled Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador back centuries. In Nicaragua, his administration oversaw the recruitment, training and funding of the Contras. U.S. intelligence pitted hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans against one another, employing a mercenary army whose sole task was to wreak havoc on the population. Like Renamo in Mozambique, U.S. intelligence unleashed the terrorist Contra army on peaceful Nicaragua to undo the gains of the revolution. In an interview entitled “Reagan was the Butcher of my People,” Nicaraguan priest Father Miguel D’Escoto spoke on the wanton destruction visited on his homeland. The human toll from the death squads the U.S. military trained and oversaw defies reason. It is well-documented that Reagan’s “freedom fighters” were responsible for 70,000 political killings in El Salvador, more than 100,000 in Guatemala and 30,000 in Nicaragua.
The Contras engaged in direction assassination campaigns against literacy and health care workers, engineers and anyone dedicated to rebuilding Nicaragua. Unable to get congressional approval for the war, U.S. intelligence services resorted to facilitating the sale of crack cocaine in Los Angeles and beyond in order to raise funds for this illegal war. They also secretly sold arms to their sworn enemy Iran to raise money. This was the Iran-Contra affair. CIA officer Oliver North became the face of this horrific scandal. Neither he nor anyone ever did a day in jail for these crimes. North went on to become a celebrated author, politician and patriot.
The counterrevolution’s aim—as it has been in Cuba and Venezuela—was to wear down Nicaragua. Military and economic sabotage was designed to make life unlivable under the new classes in power. The U.S. used war, hunger, inflation, devastation and hoarding as weapons to blackmail the everyday people. The left wing of the liberation movement argued that the Sandinistas should not hold an election under these conditions with their powerful enemies bankrolling the opposition. In 1990, the former bourgeoisie—Washington’s mercenaries, who were only partially unseated from power—were able to regroup and win the presidential election behind the “liberal” candidate Violeta Chamorro.
The Sandinistas returned to power in 2006 with the reelection of Daniel Ortega. But the party and the times today are not as radical as they were two decades before. Haiti experienced a similar dynamic after the U.S. organized a coup d’etat against Aristide and his Lavalas party in 1991 and then occupied the country. Imperialism’s message was unmistakably clear: We will accept a toned-down version of the Sandinistas, but do not push too far or we will snap the whip again, as they did in the case of Haiti with another coup in 2004. The example of Haiti helps explain why Nicaragua is now more of a centrist government, retaining some of the revolutionary qualities of Sandinismo but remaining trapped in debt and the austerity programs of the IMF and the U.S. government.
As part of the general wave of anti-imperialism across Latin America and the Caribbean, Nicaragua is now part of the Venezuelan-anchored ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America) and uses revenues from oil sales to fund anti-poverty programs Though the counterrevolution was a immeasurable immediate setback for the fighting classes of Nicaragua, the gains of the revolution remain clear. No one can deny the historic importance and symbolism of what the Sandinistas accomplished in such a short period of time. Never again could the imperialists say that the “wretched of the earth could not seize and maintain power. The Sandinistas proved that they could, inspiring the world over! Sandino Presente! Carlos Fonseca Presente!