On August 22, 1979, exactly 25 years ago today, the government of revolutionary Nicaragua was formally established in the wake of the collapse of the regime of Anastacio Somoza Jr. Under a revolutionary charter known as the Fundamental Statute of the Republic of Nicaragua, the new Sandinista government abolished the old constitution, dismissed the existing Supreme Court and Congress, and dismantled the “remaining structures of Somocista power.”
I remember marking this day of triumph over dictatorship. The Nicaraguan revolution had cleared a path for movements struggling to overthrow American-backed authoritarian regimes all over the Third World. Ferdinand Marcos still seemed invincible then, but in my heart, I knew that sooner than later, he would also have to go. It was just a question of how many lives had to be sacrificed before the nation would regain its freedom.
More than this, I wanted to know how the fascinating Sandinistas, forged in the fires of diverse leftwing traditions, were going to conduct the difficult task of social reconstruction. Until then all of Latin America had been a terrain of failed revolutions. Cuba, which had freed itself from the grip of a corrupt dictator and his Mafia associates 20 years earlier, stood alone as a defiant example of the troubled quest for an alternative. America had tried everything in its manual of counter-revolution to subvert the Cuban experiment. Several times it plotted the assassination of Fidel Castro. It trained and armed an army of Cuban exiles for an unsuccessful invasion in 1961. It imposed an economic embargo that remains in effect to this day. It has isolated Cuba from the world by threatening sanctions on other countries that would do business with it.
The triumph of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua was, in a big way, also Cuba’s victory. Fidel Castro was instrumental in unifying the various factions in the Sandinista movement into a solid front against the Somoza dictatorship. Though hardly in a position to offer material resources, Cuba remained a powerful symbol of change in the whole continent. To the United States, a second Cuba was simply unacceptable. It came as no surprise therefore that when Ronald Reagan became president, his first act was to fund and arm the Contras in Nicaragua in order to prevent the spirit of the Nicaraguan revolution from spreading like wild fire in the rest of Latin America.
The US-funded Contras failed in their bid to dislodge the Sandinista government by force, but they succeeded in dissipating the attention of the revolutionary government and forcing it to spend its limited resources on arms with which to defend itself. In an effort to win global goodwill and pave the way for the normalization of the country’s political administration, the Sandinistas held an election to elect a regular president in 1984. As expected, the Sandinistas won that election. But their political victory only provoked more economic destabilization efforts aimed at showing that a Marxist government would not be able to solve the country’s economic crisis.
By 1990, Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president, unexpectedly lost to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the opposition candidate and widow of the former La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. Violeta Chamorro was an original member of the five-member Sandinista Junta. From thereon, the Nicaraguan social experiment began to evaporate. Subsequent elections failed to bring Daniel Ortega back to the presidency. We heard nothing more about the revolution until the other day, when a former Sandinista, Dr Alejandro Bendana, came to the University of the Philippines to give a lecture.
Until 1985, the revolutionaries still wielded state power, but ironically they could no longer use this power to reorganize and rebuild Nicaragua. The more serious the crisis grew, the harder the social reconstruction of Nicaraguan society became. The Sandinistas found themselves, in the words of Dr Bendana, slowly “letting go of the machine of the State.” Today they still control about 40 percent of the legislature, and more than half of the local governments. One cannot really say they are out of power. But the Sandinista Party, says Bendana, has become as conventional as other electoral parties, subject to the same vices and corruption afflicting politicians. They could not even stop an IMF-imposed structural adjustment program in 1989.
“So, what is power? What is revolution?” asks this former Sandinista ambassador to the United Nations. Revolution has to be much more than seizure of state power, he says. It has to lead to a democratization of social relations at all levels of society, or it is not a revolution.
By coincidence, also last week, I had a chance to view with some friends the film about Fidel Castro that HBO commissioned Oliver Stone to make in 2003 but refused to air. “Comandante,” a documentary film based on three days of interviews with the Cuban leader, is an extraordinary portrayal of the problems and dilemmas of revolution. With very sparse commentary, the film shows Fidel in a reflective mood, and provides a glimpse of the steely resolve and powerful mind of a man who is bent on defending the revolution he began.
The Cuban revolution is 45 years old. Cuban society is a model of social equity and popular participation. As a nation, it is proud and independent. It can defend itself. But its economic poverty and isolation from the rest of the world, the result of its refusal to bow to American domination, will deter other nations from following its path. Is there an alternative?
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