The Nicaraguan contras (was Re: Chavez and Fighting Back History)

Jose G. Perez jg_perez at
Thu Aug 3 19:04:04 MDT 2000

>>BTW, what do you think of  James
Petras' critique of the FSLN? That they should have gone the Cuban
route? Or was there not enough int'l support?<<

I don't think the FSLN could have "gone the Cuba route," not exactly,
and not very easily.
The development of social classes was much more advanced in Cuba in
1959 than in Nicaragua in 1979. The penetration of imperialism was
vastly higher in Cuba. The fact that the Cuban revolution very quickly
and seemingly inevitably grew into and consolidated itself as a
socialist revolution was determined by these factors, not just the
quality of the leadership.

The key event was the agrarian reform law of May, 1959, because it
directly affected some of the most important imperialist and national
capitalist concerns on the island. We think of an agrarian reform as
being a bourgeois democratic measure that, in and of itself, does not
go beyond the bounds of bourgeois property relations, and in the
abstract that is true. But this specific agrarian reform, because of
the way capitalism in Cuba was structured, struck a devastating blow
to the biggest powerhouses of capitalism in Cuba, and one could only
put it into practice by waging class war, which then has a logic of
its own.

    Through waging that battle and through other initiatives and
fights, the masses were strengthened, their self-confidence grew, they
became better organized and were able to systematically and
successfully expropriate the entire capitalist class and every last
imperialist holding on the island. It was in that process of class
struggle that the proletariat acquired full consciousness of its own
interests and historic role as a class and emerged distinctly as the
leading social force in Cuba, which it had not had a chance to do in
the process leading up to the overthrow of the dictatorship, which
instead had taken the form of a struggle waged by "the people"

Similarly in Nicaragua, the overthrow of the dictatorship was achieved
through a struggle waged by "the people," rather than one in which the
working class as a class, in its own name, played the leading or even
a distinctive

The Sandinista agrarian reform was a byproduct, so to speak, of that
popular struggle and the seizure of power. I do not mean to in any way
imply the Nicaraguan struggle for power wasn't a class struggle; most
clearly it was. But it did not present itself openly, nakedly,
transparently that way, with the property question as the central

Somoza and his cronies were the biggest landowners, when the
somocistas fled, a great deal of land fell into the hands of the new
government. The agrarian holdings of non-Somocista capitalists went
untouched. The agrarian reform in Nicaragua was mostly concerned with
putting the former Somocista estates into production. I think part of
the impetus for doing agrarian reform in the form of creating
cooperatives came from this.

In Cuba such an agrarian reform would not have worked, for the land
was still in the hands of the capitalists and you had to have the
agricultural proletariat and semi proletariat and peasantry for troops
to TAKE IT AWAY from the bourgeoisie and the absolutely only way to do
THAT, all history shows, is for the peasants (including some
fraction of the agricultural wage workers, most likely) to take it for
their own individual smallholdings, no ifs, ands or buts. When that
happens some large capitalist farms will remain as state enterprises
or coops, but many, many others will be broken up into individual
family farms.

I think a radicalization of the Nicaraguan process along class lines
with the property question as a class question at the center of the
fight would have had to begin, as that stage of the Cuban revolution
began, in the countryside. There were opportunities, I believe, to
follow such a policy if the FSLN had chosen to do so. For example, in
1984 or 1985, there was a peasant movement among Enrique Bolaños's
"hands" in the cotton fields demanding their boss be expropriated and

they be given the land in individual plots.

These workers held some large demonstrations, but the FSLN played the
role of the firehose and put out the conflagration. This, by the way,
shows that the agricultural proletariat in Nicaragua was hardly a
mature working class. Its members viewed themselves as landless
peasants, NOT as proletarians, even several years after the seizure of

    The expropriation of "Churruco" Bolaños, then head of the COSEP
(the union of bosses) and today vice-president of Nicaragua could not
possibly under Nicaraguan conditions at the time have remained an
isolated incident. The remaining bourgeoisie would have taken it as
the start of the long anticipated (by them) "final offensive" against
their property. The problem here is that the bourgeoisie had a certain
amount of influence over a vast section of the popular masses who, due
to the extreme underdevelopment of Nicaragua, were neither bourgeois
nor proletarians. The archetype of this layer were the small
merchants, mostly women, who had stalls in the Mercado Oriental. The
reaction of this layer to such events was, I believe, unpredictable at
best. The revolution had already alienated many of them beaus the
state monopoly in basic grains and the rationing system, as well as
the war-induced inflation, hurt them economically. And the Nicaraguan
working class as such was inextricably intertwined with much of this
layer, by family ties, friendships and so on.

    On the other side, revolutionary-minded workers and peasants would
probably have felt the same way as the capitalists, that this was the
beginning of a final offensive against the bosses, and pressured for
the government to break up other capitalist farms, and properties, or
tried doing it themselves.

    We should have no illusions: the effect of such events would have
been to further disrupt an economy that was already beginning to
suffer runaway inflation and sharp declines in production. And the
problem was not so much economic but political: imbued with
revolutionary ideas, the people are capable of anything. But a
worsening of the economic crisis then would have tended to worsen the
revolution's problems with the urban masses and with the already
established peasant producers. And in the case of the Bolaños holdings
it would also have directly undermined cotton production, one of the
country's main exports and a vital resource for the war (because of
the need for uniforms).

    Those are good reasons for people not to be quick to condemn the
FSLN for trying to hold back the workers who were demanding the
expropriation of one or another capitalist or landowner. But there is
another reason. If you're going to take out a capitalist class, you've
got to attack with sufficient force.

    Fidel did the same thing, in essence, in the first couple of years
of the revolution (and continued to do analogous things to this day).
I believe one of the things to be learned from Fidel as a practitioner
of the ART of politics is precisely how he let mass pressure build up
to the breaking point before unleashing a fresh offensive against
still-unconquered enemy positions. Because each encroachment on
capitalist privilege and property by the revolution in Cuba
brought forth fresh demands from the most impatient
workers to deal with some other Cuban boss or imperialist corporation
by expropriating them. Fidel held them back. He was, in effect, giving
time for the rest of the working people to catch up with the most
advanced contingents of proletarians. And the positions already taken
had to be at least minimally consolidated before pressing ahead.
Decreeing an expropriation or intervention (placing under the control
of a government administrator although the establishment is still
technically property of the capitalist) is the least of it. Then you
have to go out and actually DO it, on the ground, take over the
enterprise and begin making it produce again. Re-registering as the
property of the people a factory that then does not reopen is an
entirely hollow victory that will tend to demoralize working people,
not strengthen their fighting will and resolve.

    Of course, in retrospect, the FSLN policy in the mid-80s, which
was, in effect, temporizing, trying to buy time to defeat the contras
and perhaps for there to be a further shift in the regional and
international relationship of class forces (with a victory in El
Salvador, for example), does not look  very attractive because we know
how things came out. And people say, "they should have taken the Cuban

    But the Cuban road was not easy in Cuba (I think Fidel's artistry
as a revolutionary politician and the imperialist's bungling of their
campaign against the revolution makes it seem a less dicey proposition
than it really was). I've already referred to the much more developed
class structure of Cuban society. Cuba also had an entrenched
tradition of revolutions and revolutionary struggle in a way few other
countries had been forced to have. Cuba's identity as a nation largely
emerged in and through violent revolutionary struggle.

    In the 90 years leading up to Jan. 1, 1959, there had been the ten
year's war against Spain (which started in 1868) and was, very
significantly, a revolution against colonialism and against slavery,
the so-called "small war" shortly thereafter, the war for independence
of 1895-1898, and then a whole series of plots, protests, rebellions
and risings during the 60-year pseudo republic, including a rising by
Black veterans of the revolutionary war (in 1912 or 1913), the
revolution that overthrew the dictator Machado (1933), the Moncada
attack (1953), and finally the guerrilla campaign and mass
radicalization that so thoroughly undermined the Batista dictatorship
that it collapsed (1957 and 1958).

    I think we also have to take into account that the Cuban
revolution was extremely fortunate to have come along when it did. If
the attack on the Moncada barracks had succeeded and the revolution
triumphed in 1953, it may well have been beyond the Soviet Union's
power to help Cuba nearly as much as it did a few years later. Also,
the Soviet leadership in the mid-50s was in turmoil in the immediate
aftermath of Stalin's death. They may not have been together enough to
aid Cuba effectively, even if it had been within their reach.
Khruschev's 1962 threat to Kennedy to treat an invasion of Cuba as a
direct attack on the USSR would have been taken much less seriously
just a few years before (even in 1962, the Soviet's capacity to attack
the U.S. with nuclear bombs was very limited, and wildly overrated by
the Americans in the wake of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin's first
spaceflight by a human being).

    There were also political considerations: the sino-soviet rift
(which hadn't happened in 1953) was just emerging into the open and
Khruschev would have wanted "third world" credentials, given the
tremendous popularity of the anticolonial struggles with the Soviet
people, and Soviet efforts to develop relations with new nations that
won their independence following World War II, among whom Fidel and
Cuba were extremely popular.

    The United States was still pressing a full-court encirclement
offensive against the Soviet bloc, and short of war, there was nothing
for the Soviets to lose in terms of establishing a modus vivendi with
the imperialists and much to gain (in terms of getting the Americans
to at least have a little more respect for Soviet capacities) by
standing up to them in Cuba.

    And, frankly, I think the personality, character and values of the
top leader on the Soviet side made a difference.

    If the Cuban revolution had come a few years later it might have
received some protection from the U.S. being entangled in Vietnam, but
undoubtedly Brezhnev would have tried to use it as a bargaining chip
in negotiations with Kissinger and Nixon. But as it turned out, by
1972, the Soviets had burnt their fingers a couple of times in Cuba,
and the Americans much worse and done it countless times. The
revolution itself was much more consolidated than it had been in the
first couple of years. I think both Nixon and Brezhnev knew there was
nothing to be done about these wild Cubans and their crazy revolution,
and tacitly or explicitly agreed to take it off the table.

    By the time the Nicaraguan revolution triumphed in 1979, détente
was well established and the Soviets were on their way to the "end the
cold war at any price" policy of the Gorby years that helped set the
stage for the wannabee bourgeois Stalinist bureaucracy to carry out
the restoration of capitalism. It was not, I don't think, fully
appreciated at the time (except by the Cuban and Nicaraguan
leaderships) just how miserly the Soviets were being with their aid
and especially in refusing to offer adequate weaponry for the war. I
certainly didn't understand it, lulled partly by deceptive Nicaraguan
statements suggesting they really didn't want the planes, or weren't
ready to receive them, a desperate attempt, I now think, to cover up
their rift with the Soviets.

    But more than a decade later former Soviet functionaries would
reveal (in interviews with the producers of CNN's Cold War documentary
series) how the Nicas begged them for fighters and more choppers, and
the soviets just filed the requests away without acting on them, so as
not to "provoke Reagan."

    I think when people say, "they should have taken the Cuban road"
in Nicaragua they do not fully appreciate all the factors that made it
possible for Cuba to take that road, especially in the *way* it did
so, because looking back, it seems so easy, practically inevitable. We
also must not forget that it has taken tremendous tenacity on the part
of the leaders, the Cuban working class, and the Cuban working people
generally to *stay* on that road. By 1994 or so, in the depths of the
darkest days of the special period, the double blockade as Fidel quite
rightly calls it, there were more than a few people in Cuba, not
gusanos, not weaklings, but people I know whose personal history and
circumstances were such that they could have easily bailed out, who
believed the country could not hold out much longer. And THAT after 35
years of revolution, going through all kinds of battles, registering
tremendous social advances, and having the most tested and proven
revolutionary leadership that has yet existed on the face of the

    Given the Soviet refusal to offer the Nicas even a few Korean War
relic jet fighters, I believe it is entirely reasonable for the FSLN
National Directorate to have concluded they would have faced a
situation much like the one which Cuba faced later, in the early 90s.
The west Europeans would certainly have cut Nicaragua off, as would
have most likely the Latin American countries. And the Soviets? I
suspect they told the Nicas explicitly that if they went further, they
would be entirely on their own, and, at any rate, that would almost
certainly have been the case. It was the only possible conclusion the
FSLN leadership could draw from how the Soviets were treating them.

    It is, of course, since we know how the actual
policy turned out, rational to choose what would have been,
in essence, another Paris Commune. And I believe, in the end, history
will say that the Communards did not die in vain.

    That is the option Fidel proposed to the Cuban people on July 26,
1989, when, on the eve of the outbreak of the open, terminal crisis of
East European socialism, Fidel said that even if the socialist block
were to disappear Cuba would continue fighting for socialism, and even
if the Soviet Union disappeared Cuba would continue fighting for
socialism, and he added to his traditional "Patria o Muerte" closing
the slogan, "Socialismo o Muerte," socialism or death. (And, by the
way, if anyone else apart from Fidel saw what was coming in Eastern
Europe and the USSR, they did not bother to say so).

    But I do not believe that this is a choice that can or should be
urged on a revolution or its leadership from the outside, even if we
hope that, under similar circumstances, we would make that choice, or
even if we know that we WOULD make that choice because we have already
been through that or a similar test in the past.

    The overall course chosen by the FSLN was an entirely rational,
revolutionary and honorable one.  And that is so even if one views any
number of specific policies as having had serious flaws, and despite
the theorizing that went on and any illusions about a unique
Nicaraguan model,  and even if one postulates that the FSLN leaders
understood at the time they opted for the policy (which, clearly, none
of them did) that most likely this revolution under these
circumstances would be defeated. In politics as in war, victory is
impossible without mastering the art of retreat, sometimes it is the
best policy.

    The Nicaraguan revolution was defeated because it faced an
incommensurably stronger opponent and because they world wooing class
movement was not strong enough in organization and political
consciousness to give it sufficient effective aid so that it could
prevent the imperialists from bleeding it to death through the contra

    Just how weak the world working class had become would become
glaringly obvious in the fall of 1989 and after, with the shameful
collapse of the
Socialist Block and the Soviet Union. After decades of bureaucratic
misrule and abuse, there wasn't enough strength left in the October
revolution even to save itself, or put another way, the world workers
movement and most of all the working class of the Soviet Union had
been so thoroughly demoralized, disorganized, atomized and
depoliticized that they no longer were able to see in the nationalized
property underlying the Soviet State the embodiment of their own

    I do not believe that could have been said in such a categorical
way of the Soviet proletariat in the couple of decades immediately
following World War II. I believe they still retained part of the
class consciousness they conquered in making the Russian revolution,
and that that consciousness had been strengthened in the Great
Patriotic War of 1940-1945, and was again refreshed, at least a
little, with the (however timid) destalinization of the Khruschev
period. And it would take the bureaucracy another quarter century to
extinguish that collective historical memory enough so that they could
make an open bid to restore capitalism.


----- Original Message -----
From: "Sam Pawlett" <rsp at>
To: <marxism at>
Sent: Wednesday, August 02, 2000 1:43 AM
Subject: Re: The Nicaraguan contras (was Re: Chavez and Fighting Back


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