Nicaragua's daring experiment, 1979-1991

In 1979, the repressive government of a vicious dictator was over-thrown by a moderate socialist revolutionary movement, the Sandinistas, who went on to run an enlightened, democratic socialist republic for a dozen years despite ferocious opposition from the United States of America.

The Sandinistas held (and won) elections within a handful of years; international observers upheld these elections as exemplars of good conduct; and they repeated the exercise after a few years, with the same result and approval. The third time round, they lost and the international observers wryly observed that if the abnormalities which plainly caused their loss had happened in America, it would have caused an out-cry – but I'll return to that.

While the Sandinistas espoused socialist (which, please, do not confuse with either communist or central-control) ideology, they broke new ground in the spectrum of socialist thought: they recognized the benefits of leaving control of the means of production in the hands of the workers rather than transferring it to the state – though they did engage in some nationalization. When farmers expressed their displeasure at proposed collectivization, the Sandinista government bowed to their wishes and allowed them individual farms instead. The trades unions enjoyed such independence from the state and party machine as enabled them to serve as a genuine voice for the workers in the decision-making processes of industry. The Sandinistas explored how socialism and liberty can go hand in hand.

While the rest of Latin America groaned under the heel of U.S.A.-sponsored dictators with disgusting human rights records, the Sandinistas took pains to ensure that if any local official chose to adopt such malpractices, the process of law would aid and support his victims; and managed, at the very least, a vastly better human rights record than any of their peers. The Sandinista government embarked on an extensive program of education, raising literacy levels to better than the U.S.A. itself could boast, and promoted a health service the U.S.A.'s poor could have envied, had they been allowed to know of it.

Yet the U.S.A. did not like the Sandinistas. Partly, of course, they'd committed the faux pas of ousting one of our dictators. They'd also confiscated the lands of those major land-holders who they found guilty of crimes against the people in the aftermath of the revolution: and actively pursued a policy of land reform (the source, indeed, of the farm-land they proposed collectivizing prior to the above-mentioned bow to the wishes of the farmers). They favoured state-run businesses at the expense of foreign-run corporations, though they did not entirely oppose private enterprise. To the paranoid sensibilities of the U.S.A., this is Stalinism, regardless of their avoidance of the heavy-handed central planning (and purges) which characterize the central vices of communist regimes.

Common folk were enabled to get on with their lives, free of the fear of repression, free of the burdens of debt or extortionate rents (which have much the same effects), with a liberal constitution and a democratic government with an elected opposition. They set a good example to the rest of Latin America: if they weren't perfect, they were at least vastly better than the governments around them, which the U.S.A. propped up as bulwarks against a rising tide of socialism.

As the title of an Oxfam report put it, the U.S.A. feared the threat of a good example being set by the Sandinistas. Throughout the dozen years of the Sandinistas' reign, the U.S.A. – previously Nicaragua's principal trading partner – engaged in a trade embargo designed to cripple the Nicaraguan economy. Despite this, the Sandinista regime sustained improvement in the standard of living of the Nicaraguan people.

The U.S.A. harboured (and arranged for neighbouring countries to harbour), funded, trained, equipped and in all ways gave succour to the contra, counter-revolutionary guerrilla forces who fought to oust the Sandinistas. These freedom fighters, as Ronald Reagan liked to call them, murdered health workers, community leaders, teachers and trades-unionists; so one might be forgiven for describing them as terrorists – as the Sandinistas did. In order to assist the contra, the C.I.A.'s Oliver North, under the guidance of his boss Poindexter, sold illegal drugs in the U.S.A. (imported from client states in Latin America) to obtain the funds with which to buy weapons (from Iranians) to supply to the contra.

Among other flagrant breaches of international law, the C.I.A. mined the port of Managua, Nicaragua's capital – and were caught doing it. The international court in the Hague found the U.S.A. guilty of this crime and sentenced the U.S.A. to pay billions of dollars in compensation. The U.S.A. treated this court with contempt: they refused to pay and stepped up their efforts to displace the Sandinistas from government.

As the Sandinistas prepared to stand for re-election a third time, the U.S.A. stumped up huge sums of money and organized all the opposing parties (including the communist party of Nicaragua) into a motley coalition to oust the Sandinistas. If a foreign power intervened so hugely in the U.S.A.'s elections, it would (even if such huge campaign contributions were not illegal) cause an out-cry: yet this was not all. The U.S.A.-directed contra stepped up its campaign of terror, while the U.S.A. overtly promised to broker a peace between contra and victors, lift their economic sanctions and offer economic aid – if the Sandinistas lost the election. No wonder, then, that international observers were leary of the fairness of the election.

Despite a gun pointed at their heads, a bribe on the table and a promise to resume trade, the Nicaraguan people still cast more votes for the Sandinistas than for any other party; the Sandinistas retained two fifths of the elected assembly but lost the election. True to their word, the U.S.A. did end the contra's terrorism (easy to do: they had but to stop paying them to continue) and lift their trade embargo; but where it came to the aid package, of a few million dollars, there was a string attached – the new regime had first to sign away Nicaragua's rights to the billions of dollars the U.S.A. owed it in compensation for the mining of Managua's port.

This final sordid episode took place under the regime of George Bush Sr., in the midst of all his rhetoric about a new world order in the winter of 1990 to 1991. These champions of democracy and leaders of the free world bought an election in order to get out of their lawful punishment for a crime they incontrovertibly committed. They could not more clearly have shown their contempt for the rule of law, belying all their rhetoric about fighting for justice and decency in international affairs. At best, their subsequent adventurist wars can be construed as vigilantism – when the press describes the U.S.A. as the global policeman, it disguises and legitimizes a flagrant and unscrupulous bully.

I salute the courage of the Nicaraguan people throughout that experiment and lament the base degeneracy into which the U.S.A., a nation capable of great nobility, has fallen.

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