The Miami Herald
Jul. 19, 2004

Sandinista era's upheaval fading from memory

After 25 years, memories of the Sandinista Revolution and the effects it had on Nicaragua are beginning to fade from the public consciousness.

Special to The Herald

MANAGUA - Twenty-five years ago today, Nicaragua took center stage on the world scene by overthrowing one of Latin America's oldest dictatorships and replacing it with a leftist revolutionary government.

But the Sandinista Revolution and the internal strife here that created a new front in the Cold War confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union is now fading in Nicaragua's collective national memory. The lasting memory of the Sandinistas may not be of the young rebels celebrating their triumph over the Somoza family dictatorship but of them losing power in free elections after 11 years of authoritarian rule and a bloody war by U.S.-backed Contra guerrillas.

Where two decades ago Nicaragua represented the high water mark for the left in Latin America, it is now in its 15th year of post-revolutionary administrations, a period that has seen the Sandinistas' tilt toward Marxism replaced by private enterprise and consumer goods. Once Soviet-built Ladas were the only cars on nearly deserted city streets. Today, SUVs crowd intersections at rush hour.

Supermarkets, which had trouble keeping themselves stocked with milk and toilet paper during the Sandinista regime, bulge with a wide array of products indistinguishable from the offerings in neighboring countries.

But neither Sandinista wealth ''redistribution'' programs nor the free market policies followed in the past decade have rid Nicaragua of the distinction of being among the very poorest countries in the Americas.

That unfulfilled hope both the revolution and its downfall brought seem to have left Nicaraguans feeling let down.

''It is all relative because now we have peace, but the poverty that I thought was going to be improved on has gotten worse,'' said 46-year-old Juan José Guerrero, who claims to have been out of work for four years despite holding a college degree in economics. ``Now there are no jobs; in the Sandinista era there were jobs.''


There are still some signs around of what happened here 25 years ago, including a statue of 1930s peasant leader Augusto Cesar Sandino, the modern-day Sandinista's spiritual inspiration, that overlooks this city. But most seem to ignore its presence.

That may be because over 60 percent of the country's population was born after the Cuban-supported guerrillas of the Sandinista National Liberation Front rolled into this capital city a day after Anastasio Somoza, the last in a line of U.S.-backed Somozas who governed the country like a private farm for almost 50 years, fled the country.

Less than 20 percent of Nicaraguans alive today are believed to have a living memory of the Somoza dynasty and its overthrow.

While a crowd of over 50,000 is expected at today's politically charged anniversary celebrations, moments of revolutionary furor come less and less frequently here, often tinged with a sense of nostalgia for an opportunity lost.

Sandinista critic and government spokesman Ariel Montoya says all the revolution left Nicaragua was a chaotic property situation ``difficult to find a solution for.''

This, he said, hurts attempts to attract investment the nation desperately needs.

During the Sandinista era, more than half of the arable land was seized by the state, without compensation for its owners, and later distributed to either those who worked on it or Sandinista cadres who wanted it. Now, it is not unusual for there to be three or more legitimate claims to title on a single piece of land.

The Sandinistas also left the country broke, with a foreign debt burden so large that it has taken two massive debt forgiveness campaigns to bring it down to close to 100 percent of Nicaragua's annual gross domestic product.

That leaves Nicaraguans today debating what the real legacy of 1979 events is.

As the main opposition party, the Sandinistas remain a powerful political force, and the possibility that they could win elections and return to power seems a major worry for their opponents.


Though Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega has lost three straight presidential elections, the Sandinistas themselves believe conditions may be right for their return.

''Today's Nicaragua is a Nicaragua inhabited by beggars, youth gangs, hungry children and desperate mothers,'' said Tomas Borge, the only surviving founder of the Sandinista Front and one of its most influential leaders.

''This is not a revolution with cancer or some grave disease,'' he said. ``It is a revolution that had to stay in bed for a while to overcome a bad cold. It has real possibilities of recovery.''