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Theory in the Practice of the Nicaraguan Revolution.

Gary Prevost, St. John's University

What is the meaning of the Sandinista revolutionary experience for Nicaragua and for students of Latin American politics and revolutionary change? These works by Luciak and Wright add significantly to our understanding of a revolution that has received considerable attention from both scholars and political leaders over the twenty years since the Sandinista National Liberation Front came to power in a popular uprising in 1979 and then ceded power peacefully following a surprising electoral defeat in 1990.

A theme that unites both works is the belief that the Nicaraguan revolutionary process, while significantly damaged by the electoral defeat and the subsequent counterreform of the administration of Violeta Chamorro, has not been eradicated from Nicaraguan history. Referring to the revolutionary process, Wright says "initial reports of its death were premature, failing to take into account the extent to which the Nicaraguan population has come to be a force of its own" (p. 27). Both writers cite the 1990 elections as a victory for the democratic process. Luciak states: "Many observers have argued that the Nicaraguan revolution failed. I would maintain the opposite. The fact that the revolutionary regime was prepared to accept the verdict of the people in an electoral process legitimizes the Sandinista project" (p. 183). Wright adds that the democracy establishes a safe political space in which the FSLN can operate in an attempt to regain political power in the future.

Both authors praise the Sandinista commitment to electoral democracy, but they acknowledge that such change was not the primary goal of the young revolutionaries who launched a guerrilla struggle in the early 1960s. Luciak poses the most important question: "The Sandinistas came to power with the promise to establish social and economic democracy. . . . Did the revolution fulfill its promise to the Nicaraguan people?" (p. 184). Luciak and Wright do not offer a definitive answer to this question, arguing plausibly that the changes set in motion during the Sandinista years in power have yet to run their course. However, both authors are not afraid to criticize the Sandinistas for their policy failures and to acknowledge the role that the U.S.-sponsored contra war played in limiting Nicaragua's horizons.

The central theme of the Luciak volume is an attempt to understand how the Nicaraguan revolutionary leaders, who were committed to the long-term construction of socialism, attempted a transitional strategy that left a majority of the Nicaraguan economy in private hands. To understand their strategy, Luciak evaluates "the extent to which domestic structures were modified to allow for political participation by the rural proletariat and agricultural producers" (p. 4). As Luciak describes, the Sandinistas conceded considerable economic power to private capital when they assumed power in 1979 at the head of a multiclass political alliance. The FSLN followed the Gramsclan prescription of "seeking hegemony" through control of political power. According to Luciak, "the revolutionary government sought to impose 'a logic of the majority' against an entrenched elite" (p. 7).

The primary focal point of Luciak's research was in the Nicaraguan countryside where the Sandinistas sought to transform the political economy using the strength of newly formed grassroots organizations, especially the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG) and the Association of Rural Workers (ATC). In addition to the inherent conflict between rural agricultural workers preoccupied with wage and working conditions and propertied peasants focused on prices received at the market, Luciak documents that the Sandinistas, in spite of their stated commitment to grassroots democracy, did not usually foster democratic representation in the mass organizations. Viewing themselves as the "vanguard" of the revolution, Sandinista leaders often closely controlled these movements from the top down. Such top-down control insulated the national party leadership from the real feelings at the base and contributed to the FSLN's downfall in the 1990 elections.

In spite of these limitations, both the ATC and the UNAG made significant contributions during the years of Sandinista state power and afterward. UNAG succeeded in integrating sectors of the agrarian bourgeoisie into the revolutionary project. The ATC had its greatest success in the early days of the revolution before the contra war began to significantly undermine the economy. However, the organization regrouped in the late 1980s, and the author shows how it has become an important organization in the current resistance to the Chamorro counterreform.

Luciak gives a detailed account of one particular project of social and economic transformation - the peasant stores. This project emerged in the mid-1980s as the Sandinistas were rapidly losing credibility and the counterrevolutionary forces were solidifying support in several regions of Nicaragua. A key element of a new strategy to win back the support of rural Nicaraguans was the establishment of a rural supply network with emergency aid from international donors. The rural supply network was targeted to the poorest peasant families in the war zones. Connected directly to UNAG, these stores also provided the basis for peasant organizing and grassroots democracy. The peasant stores often acted in direct competition to government-run operations that had monopolized the market in the years immediately after the revolution. However, the relative success of the peasant stores by 1990 made them an excellent vehicle for independent grassroots action against the Chamorro government's counterreform.

The Luciak volume also contains an excellent chapter on rural women during the Sandinista period and under Chamorro. Rural women constituted one of the most marginalized sectors of Nicaraguan society, and their circumstances have generally not been well covered by previous scholarship. The Sandinista leadership had an ambivalent position on women's issues. For most of the 1980s the FSLN maintained that the defense of the revolution required the subordination of the fight for women's emancipation. As a result, "this position was a key factor in restricting progress toward the full realization of women's rights" (pp. 161-2). However, some legal changes did occur and provided benefit to rural women. A 1981 agrarian reform law gave women the right to own land and to participate in cooperatives under the same conditions as men. According to Luciak, female agricultural laborers did benefit from the Sandinista government's commitment to improve basic needs, especially in education and health care. However, Luciak describes how male prejudice has often limited women to lower-paying jobs (p. 170). He concludes that the difficulties encountered by rural women were illustrative of the general status of women's emancipation in Nicaragua, though there were significant formal legal gains that did not frequently translate into changed practices at the grassroot level, at least in part due to the ambivalence of the FSLN itself. He notes that ironically the women's movement may well be stronger in Nicaragua today, freed from the limitations of ambivalent Sandinista state policy.

While Luciak's work falls squarely within the genre of political economy, Wright tackles important questions of political philosophy and ideology. Wright makes an important contribution in chapter 2 when he analyzes the role of FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca's attempt to establish a theoretical foundation for the Nicaraguan revolution. Any such effort must start with Fonseca's study of Augusto Cesar Sandino, the peasant leader who fought the U.S. Marines in the 1920s. Previous attempts (e.g., by Nolan 1984, Hodges 1986, and Palmer 1988) have made the mistake of seeing Fonseca's study of Sandino as solely an attempt to use Sandino's ideas and actions as inspiration to oppose the Somoza dynasty. Wright correctly sees that Fonseca was also learning directly from both Sandino's ideas and his military tactics. Through the study of Sandino, Fonseca arrived at the view that the achievement of socialist revolution in Nicaragua would occur on its own terms and not on the basis of a model imported from outside. Such a perspective was crucial to Fonseca's break from the Moscow-oriented Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN) and his decision to found the FSLN in 1961. In Wright's view, Sandino's praxis also led Fonseca to three basic principles of the FSLN: armed struggle, political organizing among both workers and farmers, and the necessity of a general strike and insurrection to bring down the dictatorship (p. 74).

Wright then proceeds to link Fonseca's ideas to the principles of governance established by the Sandinistas when they gained state power in 1979 three years after Fonseca's death: political pluralism, mixed economy, popular participation, and international nonalignment (p. 78). Unfortunately, this connection is not fully successful. These governing principles did not come from Fonseca or the 1969 Historic Program of the FSLN; rather, they came from the political platform of the Tercerista faction of the FSLN that only fully emerged after Fonseca's death. In my view, the Tercerista faction made important revisions in Sandinista political philosophy that helped bring the revolutionaries to power, but also may have doomed their efforts to remake Nicaraguan society. While the Tercerista adoption of the Western notions of mixed economy and political pluralism allowed the FSLN to court social democratic support, it also helped to create deep contradictions and divisions within the revolutionary process that contributed to the 1990 electoral defeat. Wright has a thoughtful analysis (chap. 3) of the development of the concept of pluralism in liberal thought; however, he ultimately fails to reconcile Fonseca's revolutionary notion of coalition-building to achieve state power with pluralism's inevitable connection to capitalist democracy.

Further research on Fonseca's ideas is now under way using recently opened archives, and we can hope for future works that will enhance our understanding of this important revolutionary figure. If the prediction by both authors that the Nicaraguan revolutionary process will survive proves accurate, we can look forward to many future studies of Nicaraguan society. Both volumes, especially that of Luciak, set an important standard by engaging in thoughtful field research that studies the everyday lives and activities of the people that the Nicaraguan revolution sought to benefit.
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Author:Prevost, Gary
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1996
Words:1623
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