Answering Martin Duberman
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jun 29 12:29:25 MDT 2001
(response to sections of a review of Ronald Radosh's "Commies" in the
latest Nation, www.thenation.com)
I am not a Latin America expert, and perhaps for that reason alone I pretty
much believed what I read at the time in the left-wing press about events
in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Namely, that José Napoleon Duarte was simply
a tool of the right-wing military, and that the guerrilla assault on his
rule was in the name of democracy and thus wholly justified. And
additionally, that the successful Sandinista revolution against the brutal
Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua was an uncomplicated triumph for the good.
These views were common on the left, despite some dissenters, and to a
considerable extent they still are. Radosh's argument is that our
enthusiasm was naïve and misplaced--and he includes himself among the
naïfs. In the early 1980s Radosh still thought of himself as a person of
the left, though he had begun to waver ideologically. Nonetheless, he
organized a folk music benefit on behalf of the Revolutionary Democratic
Front (the political body allied with the FMLN guerrillas), attended any
number of street demonstrations on their behalf and insisted that the armed
rebellion against Duarte was "an indigenous protest against a repressive
government" that ruled in the name of landowning oligarchs and a vicious
That the military death squads were omnipresent and the landowning class
determined to yield no ground is not in dispute, certainly not by Radosh.
But much else, he argues, is. Duarte, he reminds us, was himself once a
political exile from military dictatorship and saw himself, not
inaccurately--as we should have understood--as a social democratic reformer
who was out of sympathy with the Salvadoran right wing.
Radosh's argument here is in part persuasive: One could even agree that
Duarte had decent instincts and did not regard himself as a tool of the
ruling military/landowner clique. Yet that doesn't mean that the policies
he adopted didn't end up serving the right-wing cause, making him, despite
his intentions, their proxy. And it certainly doesn't mean, as Radosh
apparently believes, that the left-wing guerrillas in opposition to Duarte
were "a pro-Soviet revolutionary group." The proof of that, according to
Radosh, is that they failed to inspire massive and sustained support from
El Salvador's poor. But it can also be argued, as Radosh does not, that the
guerrillas were simply too factionalized and ideologically divided to
animate a mass movement.
RESPONSE: In fact, one can only "agree that Duarte had decent instincts and
did not regard himself as a tool of the ruling military/landowner clique"
if one ignores the history of El Salvador in the 1980s. While Duarte did
have a prior record as a reformer who was even jailed for his opposition to
the oligarchy, his presidency was marked by abject submission to the US
embassy, CIA and army. Surely he did see himself as a "social democratic
reformer" but in politics subjective intentions does not matter very much.
It is actions that speak louder than words.
Duarte was painted in the liberal press in the USA as a "centrist"
politician whose desire for reform was thwarted by the rightwing ARENA
party led by Hitler sympathizer Roberto D'Aubisson. In reality Duarte's
party and D'Aubisson's functioned as the two parties in the USA, with very
few serious class differences. Genuine social democrats in El Salvador had
long ago aligned themselves with the FMLN guerrillas in the capacity of the
FDR, an electoral front led by genuine socialists like Ruben Zamora and
Under Duarte, El Salvador had the lowest per capita gross national product
-- $600 -- and the highest ratio of landlessness (39 percent) in Latin
America. El Salvador's density was 581 per square mile, higher than India's
550. Its population was 60 percent rural. About 420,000 families cultivated
1.6 million acres, or about 3.8 acres each, 20 percent more than in India.
(Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 9, 1981)
Just like in Vietnam, there were showy displays of land reform, even
involving the AFL-CIO, but at no time did the reforms affect the main
source of ARENA's power, the coffee bourgeoisie. The main problem was that
the land reform--modest in ambition as it was--required compensation for
the original owners. The law generated what amounted to windfall profits
for the wealthy people who were supposed to shoulder the burden of the
economic restructuring. It also saddled peasant cooperatives with debts
that left them unable to compete in the capital markets. In addition, many
of the cooperatives were illegally stripped by landowners of their
machinery and livestock. This was the reality of Duarte's social democratic
land reform. Those peasants who objected too vocally got a bullet in the
head from ARENA. That's the way the system worked.
Radosh gives far more attention in Commies to the Sandinistas. Once again,
he started out a supporter, thrilled that the Front for National Liberation
had, in armed conflict, toppled Somoza's cruel dictatorship, believing that
the Sandinista regime would be democratic and pluralist, and appalled that
the United States was backing the contras in a brutal civil war. But in
1983, on assignment for The New Republic, Radosh went to Nicaragua for a
firsthand look. And what he concluded, over a period of time, led him to
change his mind.
RESPONSE: The New Republic was aligned with the Democratic Leadership
Council of Al Gore and Bill Clinton. The notion that one of their
correspondents would be going down to Nicaragua without a prior bias is
just ludicrous. This is a sign of the rudderlessness of the Nation Magazine
today that one of its reviewers can make such an obvious gaffe.
When the Sandinista regime proclaimed a state of emergency, suspending
civil liberties and political rights, when it jailed some domestic
dissidents, including labor militants, and when it attacked the Miskito
Indians on the Caribbean coast, Radosh decided--too uncomplicatedly, I
believe--that the Soviet Union had become the Sandinista Front's material
support and Castro's Cuba its political model: The front had fallen into
the hands of "ultrarevolutionary Marxist-Leninists." Many left-liberals,
including Irving Howe (rightly, in my view), rebuked Radosh for taking an
exaggerated position, pointing out that the Sandinista leadership included
many democrats as well, and that in any case, the Sandinistas should not be
publicly criticized while "under attack" by the American empire. Radosh
replied, with some justice, that the same adamant advice (and ostracism)
had been handed out by American leftists fifty years earlier to those who,
like Emma Goldman, pointed to the betrayal of the Russian Revolution.
This is just absurd. The FSLN permitted "La Prensa" to be published during
the worst days of the contra war, a newspaper that received funding from
the USA. No other country in history, least of all the USA during Lincoln's
presidency, would have allowed such treachery. Furthermore, the FSLN
allowed Somoza's hated national guardsmen to go free after their victory
rather than being punished for torture, murder, etc. If anything, the FSLN
was much too soft.
Not wanting to rely solely on my own limited knowledge of Central America,
I asked the respected expert Laird Bergad, director of the CUNY Center for
Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies, to read over a few of
Radosh's pages on the Sandinistas. "Fundamentally," Bergad told me, "Radosh
is right. There were too many Stalinists among the leadership. By following
the Castro model they did submerge democratic impulses, and their attack on
the Miskito Indians was a huge blunder."
What complete bullshit. The Communist Party of Nicaragua was deeply hostile
to the FSLN and urged a vote for Violeta Chamorro in 1990. The politics of
the FSLN can best be described as Mariateguism. While they were not
consistent enough Mariateguists--hence their problems with the
Miskito--they allowed multiparty elections twice during wartime, allowing
parties receiving open funding from the USA to run.
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