[Marxism] Nicaragua 25 years later: a reply to Lee Sustar

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 26 14:25:40 MDT 2004

Twenty five years ago, the FSLN seized power in Nicaragua. Although it 
is difficult to see this abjectly miserable country in these terms 
today, back then it fueled the hopes of radicals worldwide that a new 
upsurge in world revolution was imminent. Along with Grenada, El 
Salvador and Guatemala, where rebel movements had already seized power 
or seemed on the verge of taking power, Nicaragua had the kind of allure 
that Moscow had in the 1920s.

So what happened?

While nobody would gainsay the political collapse of the FSLN after its 
ouster and troubling signs just before that point, it is worth looking a 
bit deeper into its rise and fall. There are strong grounds to seeing 
its defeat not so much in terms of its lacking revolutionary fiber, but 
being outgunned by far superior forces. With all proportions guarded, a 
case might be made that Sandinista Nicaragua had more in common with the 
Paris Commune than the Spanish Popular Front, which was doomed to 
failure by the class collaborationist policies of the ruling parties.

You can get a succinct presentation of this analysis from Lee Sustar, an 
ISO leader who contributed an article to Counterpunch titled "25 Years 
on: Revolution in Nicaragua." He states:

"While the U.S. and its contra butchers are to blame for the destruction 
of the Nicaraguan economy, the contradiction at the heart of the FSLN’s 
politics was instrumental in its downfall. FSLN leaders couldn’t escape 
the centrality of class divisions in the 'revolutionary alliance'--the 
fact that workers and 'nationalist' employers had contradictory interests.

"The conditions of workers had deteriorated throughout the 1980s as 
runaway inflation wiped out wage gains. Workers participated in 
Sandinista unions and mass organizations--but they didn’t hold political 
power, and their right to strike was suspended for a year as early as 
1981. This allowed the opportunistic Nicaraguan Socialist Party--a 
longtime rival of the FSLN--to give a left-wing cover to Chamorro’s 
coalition, which in turn functioned as the respectable face of the contras."

With respect to the failure of the FSLN to align itself with workers 
(and peasants, a significant omission in Sustar's indictment), 
Washington seemed worried all along that bourgeois class interests were 
being neglected and that Nicaragua was in danger of becoming "another 
Cuba." Of course, since Cuba never really overthrew capitalism according 
to the ISO's ideological schema, this might seem like a moot point. In 
any case, it is often more useful to pay attention to the class analysis 
of the State Department and the NY Times than it does to small Marxist 
groups. If the ruling class is worried that capitalism is being 
threatened in a place like Nicaragua, they generally know what they are 
talking about.

Virtually all the self-proclaimed "Marxist-Leninist" formations, from 
the Spartacist League to more influential groups like the ISO, believe 
that the revolution collapsed because it was not radical enough. If the 
big farms had been expropriated, it is assumed that the revolution would 
have been strengthened. While individual peasant families might have 
benefited from a land award in such instances, the nation as a whole 
would have suffered from diminished foreign revenues. After all, it was 
cotton, cattle and coffee that was being produced on such farms, not 
corn and beans. When you export cotton on the world market, you receive 
payments that can be used to purchase manufactured goods, medicine and 
arms. There is not such a market for corn and beans unfortunately. Even 
if the big farms had continued to produce for the agro-export market 
under state ownership, they would have been hampered by the flight of 
skilled personnel who would have fled to Miami with the owners. Such 
skills cannot be replicated overnight, especially in a country that had 
suffered from generations of inadequate schooling.

While all leftwing groups that operate on the premise that they are 
continuing with the legacy of Lenin, virtually none of them seem 
comfortable with the implications of Lenin's writings on the NEP, which 
are crucial for countries like Nicaragua in the 1980s or Cuba today, for 
that matter. In his speech to the Eleventh Congress of the Communist 
Party in 1922, Lenin made the following observations:

"The capitalist was able to supply things. He did it inefficiently, 
charged exorbitant prices, insulted and robbed us. The ordinary workers 
and peasants, who do not argue about communism because they do not know 
what it is, are well aware of this.

"'But the capitalists were, after all, able to supply things—are you? 
You are not able to do it.' That is what we heard last spring; though 
not always clearly audible, it was the undertone of the whole of last 
spring’s crisis. “As people you are splendid, but you cannot cope with 
the economic task you have undertaken.” This is the simple and withering 
criticism which the peasantry—and through the peasantry, some sections 
of workers—levelled at the Communist Party last year. That is why in the 
NEP question, this old point acquires such significance.

"We need a real test. The capitalists are operating along side us. They 
are operating like robbers; they make profit; but they know how to do 
things. But you—you are trying to do it in a new way: you make no 
profit, your principles are communist, your ideals are splendid; they 
are written out so beautifully that you seem to be saints, that you 
should go to heaven while you are still alive. But can you get things done?"

If the Bolsheviks required a return to some elements of capitalism in 
1922 in order to "help get things done," why would anybody expect the 
FSLN to do otherwise? In 1922, the Bolsheviks ruled over a country that 
had wiped out their own contras decisively and secured its borders. By 
comparison, Nicaragua was like a sieve with armed terrorists backed by 
the USA infiltrating freely from North and South. The Soviet Union was 
also a major economic power, despite being ravaged by war. With an 
immense population and an abundance of coal and iron ore, it had the 
ability to produce its own heavy capital goods. Nicaragua, by 
comparison, had a population about the size of the borough of Brooklyn 
and no industry to speak of.

Despite all these relative advantages, the Bolshevik leaders feared for 
the survival of the Soviet Union unless it received help from victorious 
socialist revolutions in the more advanced European countries. In 
"Results and Prospects," Trotsky wrote:

"But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in 
the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with 
certainty--that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it 
will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the 
direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of 
Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into 
a lasting socialistic dictatorship."

With a GDP equal to the size of what US citizens spend on blue jeans 
each year, how would Nicaragua have managed to forestall the fate that 
Trotsky predicted for the USSR? Indeed, whatever the faults of Stalinist 
Russia, it could always be relied on after a fashion to provide material 
aid for postcapitalist countries like Cuba or Vietnam that were under 
siege. It was Nicaragua's misfortune to have come into existence at the 
very time that such protections could no longer be guaranteed, even when 
doled out like from an eyedropper.

In October 1988, Soviet Foreign Ministry official Andrei Kozyrev wrote 
that the USSR no longer had any reason to be in "a state of class 
confrontation with the United States or any other country," and, with 
respect to the Third World, "the myth that the class interests of 
socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism 
does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority 
of developing countries already adhere or tend toward the Western model 
of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from 
capitalism as from lack of it." It is safe to assume that high-level 
Soviet officials must have been talking up these reactionary ideas to 
the Sandinista leadership long before Kozyrev's article appeared.

These new ideas benefited US foreign policy needs in a dramatic way. In 
early 1989, a high-level meeting took place between Undersecretary of 
State Elliot Abrams and his Soviet counterpart, Yuri Pavlov. Abrams made 
the case that relations between the US and the USSR would improve if the 
Nicaragua problem somehow disappeared. Pavlov was noncommital but gave 
Abrams a copy of Kozyrev's article. This telling gesture convinced the 
Reagan administration that the USSR would now be willing to sell out 

This meeting is described in Robert Kagan's "A Twilight Struggle: 
American Power and Nicaragua 1977-1990." Kagan was a member of the State 
Department's Policy Planning Staff in the Reagan years and helped to 
draft key foreign policy statements, including the document that 
contained what has become know as the "Reagan Doctrine". More recently, 
Kagan has gained attention as part of the gaggle of neoconservatives 
pushing for war against Iraq last year. His "Of Paradise and Power: 
America and Europe in the New World Order" basically provided an 
ideological justification for US unilateralism since the Europeans were 
seen as epicene appeasers of Evil. Since the reversals in Iraq over the 
past year or so, Kagan has maintained a lower profile.

Despite the expectations of the ordinary Nicaraguan who voted for the 
removal of Daniel Ortega, the country was not the beneficiary of US 
largesse. With the removal of the Soviet Union as a countervailing 
hegemon, it was no longer necessary to bribe restive populations. 
Instead of a Marshall Plan, the best that could be hoped for were a few 

In a newly established free trade zone, a textile factory owned by 
Chentex set up shop. In 2000, a delegation from the United States 
discovered women who were working 60 hours a week. One woman who was 
married to another maquiladora employee suffered from conditions that 
were far worse than those endured under FSLN rule. The December 3, 2000 
NY Times quoted one delegation member: "The couple had a 3-year-old 
daughter with discolored tips of her hair, probably from a protein 
deficiency. These are people who work 60, 70 hours a week, and their 
standard of living is just abysmal." When these workers tried to 
organize themselves into a union, the bosses attempted to fire them all. 
Contrary to Lee Sustar, you can be assured that these working people 
knew the difference between the FSLN's attitude toward working people 
and the neoliberal gang in charge right now. The FSLN acted as it did 
because it had no alternative; the US backed government and its maquila 
bourgeoisie act as it does because it is sees workers as mules to 
generate superprofits.

Despite the best efforts of the FSLN to make itself acceptable to US 
imperialism, its hallowed past still condemns it. When Daniel Ortega ran 
for president of Nicaragua in 2001 on a tepid social democratic program, 
Jeb Bush wrote an attack in the Miami Herald. Ortega supposedly "neither 
understands nor embraces the basic concepts of freedom, democracy and 
free enterprise". He added: "Daniel Ortega is an enemy of everything the 
United States represents. Further, he is a friend of our enemies. Ortega 
has a relationship of more than 30 years with states and individuals who 
shelter and condone international terrorism." The article was 
immediately reprinted in La Prensa under the headline "The brother of 
the president of the United States supports Enrique Bolanos" by Ortega's 
rivals in the Liberal party. Both the Liberal Party and La Prensa 
enjoyed CIA funding in the 1980s. One presumes that this is still the case.

If the nightmare of maquiladoras and declining economic expectations is 
to be reversed, it will come as a result of more favorable objective 
circumstances in Latin America and Central America generally. With the 
rise of Hugo Chavez and the continuing resilience of the Colombian 
guerrillas, that day may be coming sooner rather than later.

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