The Miami Herald
July 18, 1999

Hostility to the U.S. a costly mistake

20 years after the revolution, Nicaraguans
wonder how it all could have gone so wrong

 Herald Staff Writer

 MANAGUA -- It was hard to say which was shining more brightly, Moises Hassan
 thought, as his makeshift military caravan rolled down the highway: the sun in the
 sky, or the faces of the people crowded along the road, shrieking ``Viva!'' to his

 It was the morning of July 19th, 1979, and Nicaragua had just awakened to find
 itself abruptly, stunningly free of a dictatorship that, for more than 40 years, had
 passed the country around from generation to generation like a family cow.

 Hassan, as a senior official in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the
 guerrilla movement that had spearheaded the rebellion against the dictatorship,
 had played a key role in ousting it. But now, as he waved to the crowds lining the
 highway, he realized that it was what came next that would really count.

 ``You could see the happiness in the people's faces,'' he recalled. ``And you could
 see the hope, too. And I told myself, `damn, we've taken a lot of responsibility on
 ourselves . . . We cannot let these people down.' ''

 Twenty years later, neither Hassan nor any other Sandinista leader denies that
 the revolution they led did let Nicaraguans down. It would reel headlong into a
 decade of confrontation with the United States, a catastrophic economy where
 peasants literally preferred toilet paper to the national currency, and a civil war
 that would
 take 25,000 lives and send perilously close to a million others into exile.

 It would end 11 years later in an ignominious electoral defeat from which the
 Sandinistas still haven't recovered, and, some say, never will. And it is still a
 source of wonder to them how everything could have gone so disastrously wrong.

 ``We believed -- it was one of our many errors -- that we were going to hold power
 until the end of the centuries,'' mused Tomas Borge, who helped found the
 Sandinista Front in 1961. ``It didn't work out that way.''

 Just as the Sandinista victory in 1979 echoed around the world, ushering in a new
 chapter of the Cold War, its collapse sent a tidal wave washing through the
 international left.

 Leftist theoreticians who could no longer defend the bureaucracy in the Soviet
 Union or Fidel Castro's erratic military adventures abroad pinned their hopes on
 the Baby Boomer regime in Nicaragua. They were devastated when it fared no
 better than the graying revolutions in Cuba and the USSR.

 ``It's like saying we had a project to make the world over with greater justice and
 greater fairness, and we failed,'' said Margaret Randall, an American academic
 who lived in Nicaragua during the first four years the Sandinistas governed and
 wrote four adulatory books about them.

 ``It's been very, very hard for those of us who gave our best years to Nicaragua,
 our greatest energies to Nicaragua, who had friends who died there . . . It's one
 thing to say the people are gone, but the project is still there. But now there's
 nothing. We're still picking up the pieces.''
 Chaos left Sandinistas
 a blank slate for country

 On that day 20 years ago, it was a little hard to imagine that any government
 would emerge from the debris left behind when Anastasio Somoza -- the last of
 three family members to rule Nicaragua -- slipped away in the middle of the night.

 Within hours of Somoza's departure, the entire senior officer corps of the National
 Guard, the army on which the dictatorship was built, bolted for the border. On the
 morning of July 19, Managua's streets were littered with cast-off uniforms of
 panicky junior officers and enlisted men who were making their own getaways in
 civilian clothes.

 Chaos was everywhere. Children lurched about the parking lot of the
 Inter-Continental Hotel, spraying the air with bullets from automatic rifles left
 behind by the soldiers. Inside the hotel, the last of the foreign mercenaries
 Somoza employed as bodyguards was going room to room, robbing reporters
 (including one from The Miami Herald) at gunpoint.

 At the airport, clogged with government officials and Somoza cronies trying to
 catch the last plane out, an armed band of teenage Sandinista sympathizers
 climbed into the tower to try to arrest the air traffic controllers, who were still
 wearing their National Guard uniforms. Only the intervention of a Red Cross official
 prevented a complete disaster.

 Elsewhere in the city, those who couldn't or wouldn't leave were nervously
 preparing peace offerings to the revolutionary army that was headed for Managua.
 One elderly couple spray-painted FSLN -- the Spanish initials by which the
 Sandinistas were known -- across the sides of their new Mercedes Benz.

 But as Sandinista forces poured into the city over the next few days, the situation
 quickly stabilized. And as FSLN leaders admit, the anarchy they found actually
 offered them a marvelous opportunity to start a country from scratch.

 ``The state dissolved completely,'' said novelist Giaconda Belli, who delivered the
 first newscast over Sandinista television. ``No army, no judges, no congress, no
 nothing. . . . It was like a clean slate for us.''

 What the Sandinistas had promised -- to the Organization of American States
 and the U.S. government, as they tried to mediate the war against Somoza -- was
 a pluralist, non-aligned democracy with a mixed economy. Many Sandinistas still
 say that was what they tried to build.

 ``We were not trying put a communist government in Managua,'' Belli insisted.
 ``We were very critical of the Soviet model and the Cuban model. We never
 closed our borders, we never prohibited organized religion.''

 But though there many members of the FSLN who rejected communist dogma,
 the nine men who composed the Sandinista directorate -- the central committee --
 were committed Marxist-Leninists.

 ``All the top leadership was Marxist-Leninist,'' agreed Hassan, who wasn't. ``And I
 knew that if they had their way, Nicaragua would be a Marxist state. But I wasn't
 too worried about it. I didn't think they would be able to brush aside the rest of

 Hassan was part of the five-member junta -- which included two non-Sandinista
 members -- that was theoretically governing Nicaragua until free elections could
 be held. But, he soon realized, all the important decisions were being made by
 the party leadership. The junta was little more than a rubber stamp.

 ``I remember when the Russians invaded Afghanistan late in 1979, the junta had
 to meet to decide what position we were gong to take at the United Nations,''
 Hassan said. ``We decided we would condemn it. But when [Foreign Minister
 Miguel] D'Escoto went up to New York, he abstained when it was time to vote.
 The Sandinista directorate told him what to do, and he obeyed them, not us.''

 In fact, there was an increasing confusion between the identity of the country and
 the party. The police became the Sandinista National Police, the army the
 Sandinista People's Army. Schoolchildren pledged allegiance not only to
 Nicaragua but to the Sandinista party, and promised it their ``love, loyalty and

 Meanwhile, the failure to condemn the Soviet invasion was symptomatic of the
 revolution's leftward march. The government quickly moved to seize anything that
 was ``mismanaged'' or ``underexploited.'' Farmers were ordered to sell grain only
 to a state purchasing agency and cattle only to state slaughterhouses.

 Newsmen who criticized government policies lost their papers or radio programs,
 and sometimes were jailed. Kids learned math from schoolbooks that taught two
 grenades plus two grenades plus two grenades equals six grenades, and their
 alphabet from sentences like this one that illustrated the use of the letter Q:
 ``Sandino fought the yanquis. The yanquis will always be defeated in our

 It was the profound Sandinista hostility to the United States -- the party anthem
 even referred to the U.S. as ``the enemy of humanity'' -- that led to what some
 party leaders now consider its most ruinous mistake: supporting Marxist
 guerrillas in nearby El Salvador against the American-backed government.

 First Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan warned the Sandinistas to stay out of
 the Salvadoran conflict. When they didn't, the United States first suspended aid to
 Nicaragua, and later began supporting the counterrevolutionary forces that came
 to be know as the contras in a civil war that ultimately cost the Sandinistas

 ``It was just political machismo,'' Belli said. ``Everybody was young, wearing
 uniforms, and they thought they were cute. They wanted to be heroic, and going
 up against the United States was heroic. . . . But it was the wrong thing to do,
 and the Nicaraguan people paid a high price.''

 Several Sandinista leaders say the party missed a golden opportunity when
 Thomas Enders, an assistant U.S. secretary of state, came to Managua in 1981
 with a final carrot-and-stick offer from the Reagan administration: Quit fooling
 around in El Salvador, and we'll leave you alone, no matter what you do inside
 Nicaragua. Keep it up, and we'll swat you like a fly.

 ``It was a great opportunity for a deal,'' said Arturo Cruz Jr., who was a key official
 in Nicaragua's foreign ministry at the time. ``I think it was a sincere offer. Ronald
 Reagan considered Nicaragua a lost cause. Their concern was El Salvador.''
 Sergio Ramirez, a member of the junta and later vice president, agreed: ``I
 thought it was an opportunity, and I said so, but no one agreed with me.''

 Even with the benefit of hindsight, some Sandinistas say it was unthinkable to
 back away from the Salvadoran guerrillas.

 ``That was a matter of ethics on our part,'' said former President Daniel Ortega.
 ``The Salvadorans had helped us [against Somoza]. And thanks to the armed
 struggle, El Salvador has changed. It's a much different place than it was then.
 . . . The war in El Salvador has led to a political advance, and we are part of that

 The United States wouldn't have kept its promise anyway, said Borge. ``Look, I
 don't think Cuba was ever a threat to the United States, but let's say it was at one
 time,'' he explained. ``Well, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it obviously isn't a
 threat anymore. But the U.S. agitation against Cuba and attempts to isolate it
 continue. The U.S. doesn't like revolutionaries, and we were revolutionaries.''

 But if some Sandinistas had doubts about the carrot in Enders' offer, they know
 he was serious about the stick. Three months after the Sandinistas rejected the
 deal, the Reagan administration was funneling money to the contras. Four
 months after that, in March 1982, the contras blew up two major bridges in
 northern Nicaragua, and the war was on in earnest.

 The war led directly to some of the Sandinistas' most unpopular policies, like the
 military draft, and broadened others, like moving peasants off their land into
 cooperatives. Censorship expanded until the daily paper La Prensa, the last voice
 of the opposition, was shut down completely.

 What had been skirmishes between the Sandinistas and the Roman Catholic
 Church erupted into full-fledged firefights, climaxing when FSLN militants shouted
 down Pope John Paul II as he tried to say Mass.

 It accelerated the decline already begun by their economic policies. By 1988,
 inflation was 33,000 percent annually, and it took a shopping bag full of cordobas
 just to buy lunch -- that is, if you could find lunch.

 Practically everything was in short supply: No hay, there isn't any, became about
 the only Spanish phrase a visitor to Nicaragua needed. The vast shelves of the
 supermarkets built in the days of Somoza were empty except for Bulgarian-made
 dishwasher soap, useless in a country with no dishwashers.

 When the Sandinistas managed to obtain food from their socialist trading
 partners, people were suspicious. A bumper crop of Russian potatoes in 1987 led
 to the widespread certainty that they were contaminated with radiation from the
 breakdown of the Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.

 Some of the problems, Sandinista leaders insist even now, weren't their fault.

 ``The conflict with the church was strong, and it cost us, but I don't think it was
 our fault,'' Ortega said. ``There were so many people being wounded every day, so
 many people dying, and it was hard for us to understand the position of the
 church hierarchy'' in refusing to condemn the contras.

 Others, they acknowledge, were in large part their responsibility. ``When we
 arrived, we had almost total power,'' Borge said. ``And we didn't know how to
 handle total power. What came hand in hand with total power was the mistaken
 belief that we were never mistaken. This made us behave in an arbitrary way. And
 the most grave and arbitrary abuses were made in the countryside, where the
 peasants began to join the contras.''

 Sandinista leaders agree that the contras would never have grown into such a
 huge and destructive force -- some 22,000 by the war's end -- if the U.S. hadn't
 been arming and supplying them. But most of them also admit that the revolution
 made the war possible by alienating hundreds of thousands of peasants.

 ``During the 1984 election, we had a rally down in the southern part of the
 country, and they had this peasant -- a contra who had surrendered -- make a
 symbolic presentation of a rifle to me,'' Ramirez recalled. ``We always talked
 about the contras as American mercenaries, but this guy standing across from
 me was not some big gringo Ranger. He was a simple peasant.

 ``Before that, my understanding of the counterrevolution had been intellectual. But
 here, right before me, was the face of the country. This poor man. . . . He thought
 we were going to take away his children, interfere in his family, butt into his
 religion, make him work in a collective.

 ``And this was the man that the revolution was supposed to be for! You know, the
 revolution was headed by intellectuals. We did it in the name of the workers and
 peasants, but we were all intellectuals. And in the end, most of the peasants
 were against us.''
 Sandinistas stunned
 by scope of election loss

 The war eventually forced the Sandinistas to agree to internationally supervised
 elections. They lost -- to Violeta Chamorro, publisher of La Prensa, one of their
 most important allies during the war against Somoza -- in a landslide that stunned

 ``We had a naive syllogism: If it was a revolution for the poor, then the poor
 couldn't be against us,'' Ramirez said. ``But we should have known much earlier.
 We started out with 90 percent of the population behind us. By 1985, there were
 400,000 Nicaraguans who had fled to Miami, several hundred thousand more in
 Costa Rica and Honduras, and we still only got 60 percent of the vote. The
 Nicaraguan family was split.''

 Since the 1990 election, the Sandinistas have lost three more elections (one
 presidential, two for local offices across the country) by nearly identical margins.
 The party newspaper is closed, the party television station under the control of
 Mexican investors. Two major scandals -- one over the way Sandinista leaders
 looted the government on their way out of office in 1990, another over allegations
 that Daniel Ortega molested his stepdaughter for nine years, beginning when she
 was 11 -- have been sandwiched around countless minor ones.

 Those who govern now say the Sandinistas left nothing behind but wreckage.
 Nicaraguan Vice President Enrique Bolaños, a lifelong opponent of the FSLN
 whose farm was confiscated during the revolution, says it will take decades to
 undo the damage the Sandinistas did to the Nicaraguan economy.

 ``Per capital income dropped to the levels of 1942 when they were in charge,'' he
 said. ``The trade deficit, which had always hovered around zero, went up to $400
 million to $600 million their first year, and it's stayed there ever since. Even if we
 get the foreign debt they left us under control -- it went from $1.3 billion to $12
 billion under them -- that trade deficit will kill us.''

 Many of the party's most loyal militants -- including Ramirez, Belli, Hassan and
 Cruz -- have deserted it. Some are harshly critical of what the revolution left
 behind. Hassan, who has left politics and now manages a garment factory, said
 that what he saw during the revolution has soured him on the political left.

 ``I think the left equal populism, which equals give-me-give-me-give-me,'' he said.
 ``What we bred here are people who say, `I'll go to demonstrations and shout, but
 I won't work. I want a salary, but I won't work. I want food, but I won't work. I want
 a house, but I won't work.' ''

 But others believe that the revolution left some things of lasting value, including a
 sense that even poor people have inalienable rights.

 ``A Nicaraguan peasant will look you straight in the eye,'' said Alejandro Bendaña,
 once Daniel Ortega's top foreign policy adviser, now estranged from the party.
 ``That wasn't always true. When I was a kid, they walked up to you, bowing,
 humble and deferential, saying boss this and boss that. That is a legacy of the

 Bendaña, like many past and present Sandinistas, believes that the revolution
 would have been worthwhile even if it never accomplished anything but getting rid
 of the Somozas.

 ``Our parents had failed to get rid of the bastard, and we were the ones who did
 it,'' he said. ``And to get rid of the dictatorhip, armed force was required. Banging
 pots and pans in the streets, like in the Philippines, that wasn't going to do it.''

 Ortega, somewhat paradoxically, believes that the election that ousted him proves
 that the Sandinistas moved the country forward.

 ``When we lost the election, we gave up the government,'' Ortega said. ``That
 hadn't happened before. What we have here is a typical bourgeois democracy --
 not a true people's democracy -- but I still think it represents an advance for

 But being remembered as a transitional asterisk in Nicaraguan history was not
 what the Sandinistas dreamed of in 1979, when they boasted that they would do
 nothing less than construct a New Man, free of the chains of ego and selfishness.

 ``I always thought the revolution would be a transcendental story in human
 development,'' mused Ramirez earlier this month. ``But it wasn't, was it?''