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Truth and myth in Nicaragua.

The first thing that impresses you when you visit Nicaragua is the very normality of it all. There, in what you have heard is the latest addition to the Soviet Empire, you step off the plane and encounter a huge blue and white poster proclaiming Nicaragua "Another Diner's Club Country." Dozens of other totems of American culture and commerce appear: the neon lights of a Lincoln-Mercury dealership, a "Land of the Giants" return on TV, a movie theater showing "The Blind Fury of Bruce Lee." It hasn't been so long since we practically owned the place.

And at first it's possible to believe that all this down-home schlock betokens the existence of something even more characteristically American: political pluralism. La Prensa prints bruising anti-Sandinista attacks. Traditional Catholic Masses proceed unmolested. Billboards hailing the Conservative Party decorate the highways ("Free Unions--That's Conservatismo"). An enormous red sign in Managua's middle-class Ciudad Jardin identifies the offices of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI); inside, the party's nine National Assembly delegates rock contentedly in rocking chairs.

But there are other images as well--disturbing signs that six-year-old "Free Nicaragua" may not really be so free. In Leon, Soviet-style billboards exhort Nicaraguans to follow the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) "Vanguard"--an obvious evocation of Leninist ideology. Sandinista graffiti on a law office in Chinandega informs the occupant, "Contra, you are being watched. You are on the list." The Director of La Prensa displays Interior Ministry documents ordering the censoring of 50 percent of that day's news. The young operator of a market stall denounces government harrassment of small businesses and confides that he's considering resisting the military draft. An old woman, complaining about chronic milk shortages which make it difficult to nourish her infant grandchildren, stops when she sees the local respresentative of the Sandinista Defense Committee. "We're afraid to talk," the woman explains.

From liberation to tyranny

In the United States, the conflicting images coming out of Nicaragua have set off a bitter debate. To many liberals, Nicaragua could be just another Diner's Club country. For now, the Sandinistas crack down on political opposition because of the U.S.-sponsored contra war. But the regime's willingness to permit some dissent indicates that an end to American pressure would give Nicaragua the chance to become, if not another Sweden, then at least a left-wing version of Mexico.

to conservatives, however, Nicaragua is already anotehr Cuba, wedded to totalitarianism at home and eager to do the Soviets' expansionist bidding abroad. The only way to ensure that the country pursues policies in line with American concerns about democracy and security is to support the contras' bid to overthrow the Sandinistas.

American conservatives will find very persuasive evidence for their case in Shirley Christian's history of the Nicaraguan revolution, which is based on reporting Christian did for the Miami Herald from 1979 to 1983. Her central argument is that the Sandinistas, driven by Marxist-leninist ideology, have relentlessly pursued a monopoly on political power in Nicaragua and have no intention of giving it up.

Almost every organized sector of Nicaraguan society joined the 1978-79 uprising against Somoza--students, union members, peasants, professionals, even big businessmen. The original Junta of National Reconstruction, established after the war, included both FSLN members and representatives of non-Marxist, anti-Somoza forces. Indeed, christian stresses the Sandinistas were not much more popular than the non-Marxists. But they did have two things other parties lacked: an army and Marxist-Leninism. The guns and soldiers gave them a power base; the ideology gave them discipline and ambition.

So while the FSLN said publicly that it shared its junta prtners' belief in pluralism, a mixed economy, and non-alignment, privately the party argued that collaboration with others was only needed to "appear reasonable." The real goal was "revolutionary power" for themselves. As other members of the junta watached with growing unease, the FSLN busily set about building its army; only days after the revolution, the party unilaterally announced its intention to institute a draft and began shopping for arms. By November 1979, 200 Cubans had arrived to train a military and internal security apparatus. The FSLN also established new "mass organizations" under its domination: trade unions; the Sandinista Youth; and the defense committees, which became the inquisitive "eyes and ears" of the revolution. In June 1981, Defense Minister Humberto Ortega declared, "We are never...going to discuss power."

One anti-Sandinista leader whou could have checked these trends was Jorge Salazar, an organizer of small farmers whom Christian portrays as having been the last best hope of the resistance. A charismatic figure who was enormously popular in the countryside, he was organizing an anti-Sandinista uprising when he was found killed under suspicious circumstances in November 1980. By the end of the next year, almost every important non-Sandinista who had served in the post-insurrection government--Alfonso Robelo, a businessman who headed the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement party; Arturo Cruz, who had been the FSLN's ambassador to Washington; Violeta Chamorro, widow of revolutionary martyr Pedro Joaquin Chamorro--had either left the government or left the country. Even the charismatic EDen Pastora, who catalyzed the Sandinista triumph by leading a daring takeover of Somoza's national Palace, announced his break with the Sandinistas in April 1982. Pastora eventually set up his own contra force along the border with Costa Rica.

In short, the major institutions of one-party rule in Nicaragua had already been established well before the CIA-backed contras began to mount their heaviest attacks. Repression was optional at the end of the revolution. The Sandinistas could have held elections if they had wanted to, and they might well have won. But according to the FSLN's ideology, that course to nver became an option. Those who continue to argue that the Sandinistas might permit greater liberty once the contra war ends must refute Christian's ample evidence that liberty is entirely incidental to the FSLN's political goals.

Christian suggests that what freedom remains in Nicaragua exists only because it serves Sandinista interests. The FSLN is willing to retain certain forms of pluralism, partly in order to cultivate a favorable image abroad and partly as a response to U.S. military and economic pressures. Even political parties can be allowed so long as they are too weak to pose a real challenge. Hence, the FSLN refused to provide the guarantees of electoral fair play demanded by the Democratic Coordinadora, an opposition coalition led by Cruz, which felt obliged to boycott the 1984 elections. Virgilio Godoy, the leader of PLI, pulled his party out of the 1984 election campaign just two weeks before election day for the same reason. Godoy told me in an interview that the Sandinistas promptly covered the walls of Managua with PLI graffiti, to sustain the fiction that he was still in the race. "My propaganda doubled after I withdrew," he noted. Meanwhile, the tradition of Somoza's docile opposition--the zancudo, or parasite, parties--lives on in the Nicaraguan Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the fragment of the Conservative Party which holds a few seats in the Sandinista-dominated National Assembly.

The price of indecision

Christian has no doubts about where we went wrong before the FSLN took power: "The Sandinista front was so small and weak that it probably would have become a footnote to history had a moderate regime been able to assume power in Nicaragua before the end of 1978." But under Jimmy Carter, she argues, "the United Sates ignored its own significance in Nicaraguan history in refusin gto use its power to help Nicaragua evolve into an open society." The Carter people were late to recognize the seriousness of events in Nicaragua, and when they did, they acted indecisively and naively. The administration had no idea how to achieve a transition to a moderate, democratic alternative.

One key blunder occurred in 1978, when Carter sent Somoza a letter praising the dictator for making progress on human rights. Somoza first interpreted it as a sign that he had U.S. support; later, as a subtle rebuke. The net effect was to stiffen his resolve to stay in power and to reduce his trust in the United States. "No one" in the foreign policy bureaucracy, says Christian, "was willing to go to the president and tell him it was a bad idea."

But Christian is disappointingly vague in discussing how to achieve democracy in nicaragua today. She implies that improvement will require "a more interventionist policy" from the United States. Although she stops short of a flat endorsement of the contras, conceding that the rebels "raise moral and ethical questions," Christian seems to believe we have a duty to arm them. Withdrawing support, she writes, would be "tacit U.S. support" of totalitarianism. The contras, moreover, represet "what little hope there [is] to force the Sandinista Front into accepting major structural changes toward an open political system." Yet as a good reporter, Christian acknowledges reality--that the Sandinistas may well be entrenched beyond the poing where even a well-armed contra movement could remove them. She fails to resolve the tension between this fact and her belief that the United States should try to foster real freedom in Nicaragua.

The same reporting could--and should--lead to a different conclusion. you don't have to believe in the goodness of the Sandinista regime--indeed, after reading Christian's book, you can't--to think that the costs of trying to overthrow the Marxist would outweigh the benefits. Even if the contras could win, a possibility supported by little evidence, there's not much indication that the anti-Sandinista rebel movement enjoys widespread popular approval. True, may democrats who once gave the Sandinista regime a chance--Alfonso Robelo, Arturo Cruz, and others--have now joined the contras' political wing. BUt what's to stop the Somocistas who control the contra military apparatus from squeezing these civilians out of power just as the armed FSLN once did" It's also not clear that the human rights situation in Nicaragua, bad as it is, justifies an American violation of the country's national sovereignty. This is a far cry from Idi Amin's Uganda or Pol Pot's Cambodia.

One could perhaps defend using the contras as a "bargaining chip" to force nicaragua to negotiate security guarantees with its neighbors and the United States. But even Christian, for all her skepticism over the Sandinistas, believes this goal could be accomplished without further contra pressure. "The Sandinistas appeard willing to satisfy U.S. national security concerns," she writes, "including some kind of agreement terminating Sandinista support for the Salvadorean guerrillas."

Swallowing the bitter reality of a communist regime in Nicaragua hardly means that we shouldn't try to find ways to prevent the same thing from happening elsewhere. One way to do this in Central America is to bind the FSLN to strict guarantees that it will not attack its neighbors--and back our words with the threat of American force. Elsewhere, we must avoid the vacillation and lack of foresight which plagued the Carter administration's policy in Central America. If we are serious about keeping unstable third world countries from falling into the hands of hostile left-wing revolutionaries, we have to be prepared to search patiently for ways to promote democrats who are interested in reform, but who also recognize the geopolitical and moral threat posed by the Soviet Union. We must faithfully nurture people like Jose Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador, Raul Alfonsin in Argentina, Kim Dae Jung in South Korea, and the late Benigno Aquino in the Phillipines.

As Christian puts it, " a democracy...cannot let a situation reach a point that demands black and white decisions about national security and national conscience. The United States should not allow itself to fall into the trap of having to accept, in an area as closely tied to it as Central America, either a repressive right-wing dictatorship...or a repressive left-wing dictatorship." The best reason to read Christian's book is to understand how we failed to find a third way in Nicaragua, and how grave the costs of that failure are.
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Author:Lane, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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