34 years of blameful forgetfulness, 23 of interested memory
“I regard memory not as a phenomenon
preserving one thing and losing another merely by chance,
but as a power that deliberately places events in order
or wisely omits them.”
This idea by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig,
in his book The World of Yesterday,
buffeted my memory and guided my pen
as I wrote on this new anniversary of our revolution.
José Luis Rocha
In crossing out February 25, 1990, the day the FSLN lost its first elections, with a red pen, viewing it as a historic watershed, those with Sandinista roots who now oppose that party have constructed the myth of its Satanic process of conversion from a beatific past to a present awash with perversity and spite. Some even draw that line as far back as July 19, 1979: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely! Others choose less resonant dates, but all agree that there was a point of inflection at which the revolutionary mystique began to dissipate and the FSLN began to be more possessed by “the god of fury” and the angels of greed and ambition than by the “demon of affection.” This myth has been buttressed by the four Sandinista leaders who turned their memoirs into a remembrance of the revolution—Fernando and Ernest Cardenal, Sergio Ramírez and Gioconda Belli. I exclude from this list the also interesting writings of former Sandinista Army General Hugo Torres, now a Sandinista opponent of the FSLN, who, like still-FSLN militant and current government official Omar Cabezas, limited his writings to the stage prior to the revolutionary victory.
THREE REQUIREMENTS OF THE MYTH WE BUILTThe myth of a radically opposed before and after in the FSLN is a kind of Manichean self-exculpation that falsifies the meaning of what happened and thus neither helps make sense of it nor allows us to adequately process our own historical responsibility. Said another way, it doesn’t serve the objective of myths: to reconcile the opposing poles to mitigate our anguish. It is a failed myth in that it doesn’t stand up against three requirements made of it.
The first and most urgent requirement is to rescue the experience of the victims of the massacres, hunger resulting from bad policies, repression, abusive confiscations, control and espionage by State Security, extortions by the powerful, etc. German historian Reinhardt Koselleck finds the history-law link to be as interesting as the metaphors that express that history because to obtain accurate knowledge of the facts in both cases, the best witnesses must be interrogated, their testimonies compared and the opposing side heard. Paying attention to that “opposing side” was something that those of us who fundamentally sympathized or collaborated with the revolution did very little, and begrudgingly at best, dismissing it a priori and always giving the benefit of any doubt to the Sandinista leadership.
The second requirement is to recognize that there was another Nicaragua, both within and outside of Sandinismo, that is now “reading”—or better said “rereading”—the revolution either partly or entirely as a tragedy. Opposing the postmodern perspective that there are multiple interpretations of similar validity, I propose seeking a single reading that recognizes the lights and shadows of the processes, organizations and leading figures. We need to aim for a perspective that incorporates the different viewpoints in one consistent whole. Although a single account is neither possible nor desirable, it would be terrible for future generations to study Nicaragua’s history in textbooks that have turned their back on the revolution, or that only contain either eulogies to or diatribes against the FSLN. The balance sheet so far is a juxtaposition of simplistic narratives that see the revolution either as “the dark night” or “the dawn that ceased being only a temptation.”
The current solution of creating an historic excision—the good FSLN of before and the bad FSLN of now—doesn’t do justice to those who experienced the eighties as a horrendous drama and creates a false consciousness that ignores the drive of the powerful to commit abuses with impunity. The task at hand is to reread and rescue the memory of the victims, not to produce an absolute truth but rather to eliminate false consciousness insofar as possible in expectation of new readings, clarifications and vantage points of knowledge that allow a more panoramic vision.
Goethe (1749-1832), who lived through both the American and French revolutions, wrote that his era had no doubts that universal history must be rewritten from time to time, thus synthesizing the historiographer’s aspiration to modify everything past from the perspective of each present, and benefiting from the distance gained and knowledge acquired. When asked in 1953 what he thought of the French revolution, Chinese Primer Minister Zhou Enlai responded simply, “It’s still too soon to say.” It’s even more premature still to issue judgments about the Sandinista revolution and its protagonists. But it’s not too early to throw down the challenge, gather information and denounce the interested biases and monumental silences of the current narrations.
The third requirement grows out of the need for a better interpretation of what’s happening to us in Nicaragua right now. If we don’t clarify the mechanisms of domination that operated yesterday through the introjection of various discourses generated to justify the unjustifiable, we won’t understand the pull the FSLN continues to exercise and how the moral vacuum is created in which its abuses expand.
WHAT ABUSES WERE KNOWN To test out such swampy ground, I asked essentially, albeit not exclusively, two questions of former Sandinista government members officials and members of the “grassroots base”: what abuses they knew about in the eighties and how they justified them at the time.
AND HOW WERE THEY JUSTIFIED?
Among the silence of many, the reserve of others and the generous frankness of yet others, I repeatedly came up against two objections to the line of questioning itself. The first was variations on this response: Why stir up the muck just to expose what we all know already? I can appreciate this viewpoint. There’s nothing so pointless as demonstrating that the FSLN leaders were as perfidious in the eighties as they are today, or perhaps even more so.
But it’s not about hauling back out an always incomplete catalogue of their abuses just to stand incredulous before the rot, but rather about asking ourselves what made us grant such carte blanche to a vanguard that always showed signs of such limited or non-existent moral solvency? We have to unravel what Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt—born the same year as Marx and a similarly strong critic of capitalism but equally fearful of a dictatorship of unscrupulous leaders who would enhance and justify their power on the grounds that they alone could serve the people’s will—identified as our strange waiving of customary moral laws for powerful personalities. In this sense, while abuses do matter, our justifications matter even more, because they hold the key to the mechanisms of domination.
A second group of objections revolved around these buts: Your idea is interesting but… this topic should be treated differently/ this approach is inadequate/ you’d have to study the context in which the abuses took place/ revolutions are always convulsive processes.
THE EXCEPTIONAL NATURE OF REVOLUTIONSThese objections grow out of the conviction that a revolution is an exceptional state, one that suspends guarantees and therefore any responsibilities considered indisputable in ordinary times. This position is related to the elemental excision that the phenomenology of religions establishes between profane time and sacred time. As Mircea Eliade, author of The Sacred and the Profane, among others, reminds us, “a sacred stone remains a stone; apparently (or more precisely, from the profane point of view), nothing distinguishes it from all other stones. But for those to whom a stone reveals itself as sacred, its immediate reality is transmuted into supernatural reality. In other words…, for the primitive, such an act is never simply physiological; it is, or can become, a sacrament, that is, a communion with the sacred.
“The reader will very soon realize that sacred and profane are two modes of being in the world, two existential situations assumed by man in the course of his history.”
From that perspective, the revolution is a sacred time whose proper interpretation claims other scales of measure. Those who would hang a special label on the decade of the eighties are partly right: there was a special logic and some ideological currents that distinguish that stage from others. Revolution is only conceivable and intelligible in the framework of a certain Zeitgeist, s certain spirit of the era. But that ideological delimitation doesn’t imply a special suspension that requires an exculpation of the factual, in which actions, laws, decrees, policies and conflicts appear as the only ones conceivable and in and of themselves bearers of the only possible interpretations.
All things past are condemned to be rewritten in the light—and twilight—of each new present. It will be subjected to the parameters of each new Zeitgeist. And this assumes being subjected to the moral requirements of the new moment’s historical conceptions, which in turn involves asking oneself about the crossroads of the past from the privileged vantage point of those who know the (apparent) outcome of the given episode of history.
DO WE EXEMPT THEM—If we were to attribute all historical events or political actions to the compulsive force of the social process, there would never be a place for personal responsibility. The Sandinista revolution was an enormously complex process. Fine, but aren’t other moments as well? Isn’t the one we’re currently going through every bit as complex? Let’s look at the transition from the Sandinista government to the Chamorro government. It was a genuine revolution of opportunities for the old and new elite to divvy things up with great generosity: indemnities, double indemnities and privatizations at bargain basement prices…
OR OURSELVES—FROM RESPONSIBILITY?
Is it valid to say that gang of thieves can’t be considered as such nor should be denounced due to the complexity of the transition process? In exculpating them, let’s apply the same logic that exempts people from responsibility during revolutions: the transition from a planned economy to a market one that “necessarily” unleashed an original accumulation of capital; the leap toward a new system full of uncertainties, the foreign aid funds that flowed in abundantly… in other words, too many get-rich-quick temptations in an economy that needed new economic lungs located in the private sector. Be that as it may, however, no jurist in his/her right mind would dream of putting that series of conditioners forward as extenuating circumstances for dipping into the till.
The problem is that the revolution is granted sacred status and a special temporality that only makes sense within a certain religious vision of politics, one without an iota of consistency that only serves to exempt individuals from responsibility. It is a vain attempt to produce—or condone or turn a blind eye to—certain behaviors, at least since German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the concept of “political blame” and his contemporary, German-born political theorist Hannah Arendt’s issued her stinging reflections about personal responsibility in regimes that aggressively shape consciousness.
Evasion of personal responsibility hides behind a process’ complexity or “amorality.” But my indignation isn’t aimed at the revolution, a process complex to the point of confusion and brilliant to the point of bewilderment. However hackneyed it may be to say so in a summary analysis, it was unquestionably the worst and the best of times, the brightest and the bleakest all at once. The revolution was a process marked by contradictory forces, not just “a little school all full of pencils and papers” as one of its troubadours sang and as many of us would have liked it to be or believed it was.
It’s not a whole era or the ethical spirit of a historical period that’s being judged. But there’s no complexity, imbroglio or glitter to the moral quality of many acts by FSLN militants, save for the interested way we fabricate things to exempt ourselves from our own responsibility to history. The Sandinista leaders are subjects of legal and moral responsibility. Not so revolutions themselves or any other historical process.
“NEVER TRUST IN MEMORY” This investigation is a very brief rereading of some aspects of a revolution that, while complex, includes not only the heroic mystique of some, the ideals of others, the vindictiveness of the resentful and the struggles of the aware, but also a revolution of opportunities in which one group made its way into the catbird seat, appropriating for itself the carte blanche granted to the revolution.
The vision that might “reconcile” dissonant viewpoints about the revolution into a single fresco, moving beyond juxtaposed or counterpoised narratives, might emanate from a perspective that rescues the complexity of the process while recognizing it as being led by dominant groups that serve themselves with a ladle while the dominated remain silent, resist mutely or actively oppose. The dominated can form part of, be neutral to or oppose the movement leading the revolution, depending on the social climbing opportunities opened or closed to them through policies, the configuration of the economic structure and the systematic or occasional abuses committed.
For those of us who sympathized or collaborated with the revolution, penetrating these twists and turns requires looking unblinkingly at the abuses and their justifications. It demands the kind of wariness toward memory of one of the characters in Chilean writer, film director and political activist Luis Sepúlveda’s book La sombra de lo que fuimos (The Shadow of what we were): “Never trust memory, as it is always on our side; it adorns the atrocious, sweetens the bitter, sheds light where there were only shadows. Memory always leans toward fiction.”
THE MASSACRE OF MISKITUSRather than sweetened or adorned, the bitterest remained invisible to the bulk of the Sandinista base. Nothing was as atrocious as the massacres and other abuses against Miskitu communities. Extracting from a 135-page book by London’s Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), titled Right to Survive - Human Rights in Nicaragua, published in mid-1987, envoi quoted that “In December 1981 a group of 17 Miskitu civilians were shot in Leimus in northern Zelaya, apparently in reprisal for an attack on an army unit in which several Sandinista soldiers were killed.”
The second of what the CIIR report called the “two most important cases of extra-judicial executions by the Nicaraguan Army or security forces” was “that of 69 Miskitu civilians who were detained by the Nicaraguan Army or security forces in the Puerto Cabezas area between July and September 1982 and were allegedly executed by their captors. The government has not identified or punished those responsible but has implicitly acknowledged responsibility by paying a small pension to the families of some of the victims.”
The following comment was related to the first case: “The state of emergency imposed in northern Zelaya in December 1981 was a response to a series of raids from Honduras by Miskitu antigovernment guerrilla forces allied with the FDN, the most important contra force, which was at that time beginning to operate as a structured counterrevolutionary group with support from the United States.”
A similar explanation was offered in response to my two questions by a member of the Pablo Úbeda special troops who participated in the operations to repress the Miskitus. “The Miskitus didn’t collaborate with the FSLN. One or two collaborated, at the most, which contrasts with what happened with the counterrevolution, since there was no Miskitu who wasn’t against the FSLN. First because they considered those from the Pacific as Spanish and not part of their race, and second because they assumed that, given the type of Sandinista government, it was going to take away their lands and even their customs.”
“THERE WAS NO MISKITU
WHO WASN’T OUR ENEMY” The troops’ reaction was implacable, eliminating the water in which the Miskitu counterrevolutionary fish swam. As the interviewee mentioned above explained: “There were two important missions: ‘Red Christmas’ and ‘Departure with no return,’ in which the contras attacked full bore, with sophisticated weapons. The Army, together with our troops, responded with all kinds of artillery, shells, rockets and air power. It was a large-scale war, exhausting and with human losses on both sides. There were moments when the contras almost had us under siege, and the FSLN used a strategy of concentrating the peasant families who were contra collaborators in places where the Army was, controlling them, like Wasminona, Truslaya, Sumubila, Columbus, Sahsa and other places between Las Minas and Puerto Cabezas.
“As the contras were paying the Miskitu peasants to plant rice and beans—in the Kiawa area, for example, there was a sector where the peasants had up to 200 sacks of rice and beans—our troops were ordered to throw it all in the river. We confiscated the rest—pigs, chickens, horses or cattle—since those people were sustaining the contras. Some stole away back to their places of origin, so their houses were burned down to make sure they’d have no place to go.
“The people from Kiawa were moved to a resettlement called Columbus. I remember there was a bunch of little kids and they were all airlifted in helicopters. The mothers peed themselves and fainted because the children were evacuated first. Once, pursuing the contras, we passed a house where an old man with a cane was living and asked him: ‘And your son?’ Trembling, he said, ‘I don’t know where he is; he left with the contra, that good-for-nothing,’ and one of the soldiers shot him. In that same place, there was a very young pregnant lady. She was asked the same question and refused to answer, so the same soldier who shot the old man stuck a bayonet in her belly.
“The contras came into the towns like La Tronquera, Coconwás, Waspán and other communities during skirmishes; that is, they took refuge in the towns. The Army attacked, trying to take them down. Hundreds of people died in the crossfire. I heard—because I wasn’t in that confrontation—that more than a hundred people died in one community and only a few survived. Then the Army came in and killed those who were still alive, trying to erase all evidence. Those people were buried in big ditches. I also heard that the person in charge was punished.”
“THE RIGHT TO LIFE” The Sandinista newspaper Barricada and the other leftwing newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, either said nothing or presented official versions of the facts. The immense silences of these and other media generated a cloud that concealed and encouraged continuation of the abuse. The Miskitu version of the massacres or displacements had no space in those media. There was no room for the suffering of concrete people or else they were dispatched with a rhetorical sentence that laid any kind of scapegoat, sympathizer or not, on the altar of the revolution.
Economist Franz Hinkelammert formulated this scorn for personal tragedies in an unbeatable way in his 1989 book, Abraham’s Faith and the Oedipus of the West, when he noted that Western society disparages the simple elements of human life—food, housing, health, entertainment—because it aspires to more important goals: it always speaks of a man so infinitely decent that, in pursuit of him and his freedom, concrete man must be destroyed. Let a man learn about Christ, save his soul, have freedom or democracy, build communism… these are the ends in the name of which the simplest rights of concrete men have been erased, argues Hinkelammert, rights that, from the perspective of these intended values, seem simply mediocre ends, materialistic goals in conflict with society’s high ideas. Evidently, he concludes, the issue isn’t to renounce any of these ends, but to root them in the simple and immediate, i.e. the right of all men to be able to live.
“THEY THOUGHT THAT BECAUSE WE WERE INDIANS...” The testimony of a Miskito woman who talked to me has a very different perspective from the subsuming of abuses committed into the category of “collateral damage” that the FSLN could assume the cost of and that we all had to permit: “I personally lived through the forced displacement of our community in Waspán. I was obviously little and didn’t understand the intensity of the violation at the time. Now, as an adult, I understand it as a violation of the Miskitu people’s right to remain in their place of origin, in the name of ‘personal security’ and the security of the nation. My father’s family ended up on both sides of the [Coco] river. Those who ended up on the north side [i.e. who crossed into Honduras] were accused of being contras. And those who stayed in the ad hoc settlement of Tasba Pri on the south side had to do what the FSLN said. You can imagine what that meant for my grandmother. My father, who had to adapt to working for the Sandinista government, was never satisfied with the treatment of his people. I understand that he was never totally happy working in Tasba Pri. He had to explain to his people why it was necessary to be there, in a very different place. I guess the Sandinista government thought that, because we were Indians, we could live anywhere in the forest.”
We self-styled revolutionaries didn’t see what was in front of our nose: a conflict of dominator/dominated in a region in which, according to US anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, ethnic divisions coincided with a class structure that had long since put Miskitus, Sumus [now largely known as Mayangnas] and Ramas in a subaltern, near-apartheid position. The FSLN took sides in a centuries-old domination, seating itself comfortably on the throne of the dominant ladinos, from where it ordered attacks and resettlements. From their comfy armchairs in the capital, the revolutionary bureaucrats concocted policies for a reality they didn’t know or understand and for which they had designed a simple equation that defined indigenous peoples as enemies of the revolution. The license to kill was thus not totally unpredictable.”
THE CISNEROS CASE: ANYTHING GOESThe massacres of Miskitus were the most tragic abuses. But there were other such episodes in which concrete men and women were crushed. The Cisneros case is eloquent. On May 14, 1985, Comandante Lenín Cerna, then director of State Security and Deputy Minister of the Interior, ordered the apprehension—with a massive display of force meant to be seen by the entire neighborhood—of Sofonías Cisneros, a civil engineer and president of an association of parents of children at Christian schools. He was accused of railing against Ministry of Education programs, which in his judgment promoted a Marxist-Leninist indoctrination, and Interior Minister Tomás Borge revealed to New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer that Cisneros had also “blasphemed” against FSLN founder and ideologue Carlos Fonseca Amador and child crowd-agitator Luis Alfonso Velázquez Flores, both killed in the seventies by the National Guard, calling one a pot-smoker and the other a vagrant.
Cisneros, by then 60 years old, was taken directly to the gloomy cells of El Chipote where, according to his testimony, he was personally tortured by Cerna for many hours, beaten, threatened and finally abandoned naked on a solitary corner of the capital at 3 am. Cisneros, like other detainees, charged that he had been threatened with execution and that his family would be told he had committed suicide.
Perhaps it was to these skilled techniques that Lenín Cerna referred during an interview he granted to Danilo Aguirre and Ernesto Aburto in 1999: “After being taken prisoner, they confessed everything spontaneously, without anybody touching so much as a hair on their head. The key was in two basic factors: an able, truly intelligent interrogation and an overwhelming array of proof, of evidence.”
I BOUGHT THE WHOLE STORYIn an interview for Der Spiegel in April 1986, Daniel Ortega spoke about the Cisneros case with his typical ambiguous vagueness: “We’ve heard mention of this case and have even asked the Red Cross to look into it. The gentlemen of the Permanent Human Rights Commission, which made the charge, are political activists who are against the Nicaraguan people’s revolution, but they can live freely in Nicaragua. They brought these accusations of alleged torture with no evidence… Cisneros only wanted to debase the revolution.”
I studied in the same school and participated in the same literacy crusade squadron as Cisneros’ son, also called Sofonías. Some of my classmates told me at the time that “Sofonías’ dad was kidnapped by State Security and left buck-naked in a street.” The rumor seemed far-fetched to me, but I remember Sandinista Youth members in my class who jumped around jubilantly assuming it was true. Admittedly that particular parents’ association was a thorn in the revolution’s side and its spokesperson a dyed-in-the-wool counterrevolutionary. But even so, such abuse and mockery of the most elemental legal procedures might be just another of the thousands of lies “orchestrated by Yankee imperialism and its internal henchmen.” I opted to buy the story: Cisneros wanted to harm the revolution with such an insane charge. Years later, Cerna issued a mea culpa, recognizing the abuse of dignity in the Cisnero case, albeit without specifying the degree of his own direct involvement.
TOMÁS BORGE, A SWIFT JUDGEThere were less known cases that were still known by many of those who today rend their clothes about the “new” evil FSLN and its dismantling of institutionality.
This spontaneous revelation comes from the penetrating academic Andrés Pérez-Baltodano: “I could mention various serious abuses. I’ll limit myself to the most serious one, which occurred between August and December 1979: an execution order given by then-Minister of the Interior Tomás Borge in one of the Tuesday meetings attended by those responsible for each of the ministry’s programs. My presence in those meetings has a novelistic explanation. I was named ‘administrative adviser’ to the Interior Ministry when Tomás Borge was desperately casting about for someone to help him organize it and Alfredo Alaniz, who was manager of the Central Bank at the time, sent me as an ‘administration expert uncontaminated by capitalist techniques.’
“The Tuesday meeting was attended by the ministry’s top brass: the head of the National Penitentiary System, the chief of the Sandinista Police, the director of Migration, the deputy minister and at times the head of State Security. I went as head of the Nicaraguan Institute of Public Administration, which was created to satisfy the demand for public sector administrative services. In the meetings, the program heads presented a report of their activities and described the main problems they were facing.
“On one occasion, the head of the penitentiary system mentioned that a group of ‘Somocista prisoners’ was making trouble. They were beefing about their treatment, the food and other things. The penitentiary representative alleged that this was dangerous and that the prisoners seemed organized. He mentioned the name of one who he said was the ringleader. I was seated beside Tomás, who at that moment was signaling to me that he wanted a cigarette. Actually, he was sticking his hand in my shirt pocket. The guy was that unpretentious. Without looking at the face of the penitentiary chief and while taking the cigarette pack out of my pocket, he said, ‘Kill him.’ I’d like to be able to tell you there was a dramatic silence in the meeting room, but there wasn’t. It was as if he’d said ‘Make a photocopy’ or ‘Buy coffee.’ No one showed even a flicker of reaction. Someone did say ‘You need to be careful because La Prensa is watching us,’ or something like that, to which Tomás replied, ‘He knows how to do things,’ referring to the penitentiary system chief. I left that meeting freaked out. I didn’t dare say anything to anyone. In those days, I had already accepted, stupidly and conveniently, the idiotic idea that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Or the other, equally idiotic one that any birth produces blood. That prisoner was obviously executed.”
IN THE NAME OF THE REVOLUTIONHow many people knew of that or other similar cases? How many knew of the FSLN upper-echelon’s arrangements with Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar Gaviria, who together with his family was sheltered in the embassies of socialist countries and received in the homes of important ministers to negotiate the “payment of dues” the FSLN has continued to charge drug traffickers ever since? Who can say they didn’t know about the Diplotienda [Diplomatic Store] that rewarded the kind of spending power the system denied to all those who worked honorably but had no access to those always elusive dollars? As its name suggests, that anomaly of all anomalies in a State that claimed to be socialist was originally conceived of as a center to relieve diplomats, foreign journalists and the like of much-needed and very scarce dollars, but it soon opened its doors to the comandantes and their children so they could swing by and pick up a couple of Lacoste shirts on their way to enjoying themselves in the beaches of Varadero. The government rewarded the opulent with articles denied the people in whose name the revolution was made.
Meanwhile, ordinary citizens had to jump through hoops just to get an exit visa, not to mention a passport, as one former Barricada journalist angrily remembers: “They obliged people who wanted permission to leave the country to attend politicization courses and participate in ‘revolutionary vigilance,’ militias and CDS [Sandinista Defense Committee] meetings. And if you wanted a passport, you had to demonstrate that you attended those meetings and take a letter from the CDS to Migration.” After divvying up the mansions of the ousted Somocistas in the first few days of the revolution, various comandantes took people from the least favored sectors into domestic service, dressing them in the apron and bonnet typical of “good families” and treating them as badly as they had been treated under Somocismo. Labor rights? That expression was soon expunged from the revolutionary vocabulary, together with any trace of union struggle, most often viewed as diversionism.
Yet nothing was too good for the upper echelon: the house of Jaime Morales Carazo [businessman, contra negotiator and later Daniel Ortega’s Vice President in his first reelection], considered one of Managua’s most luxurious in its time, went to Ortega. Trips abroad with padded expense accounts, unlimited vehicles and all the “diplo-products,” among many other perks, as well as an accumulation of the best farms and business after the electoral loss, capped by the Victoria de Julio sugar refinery, the Cuban government’s gift to Nicaragua.
Meanwhile the people suffered austerity measures that tormented their stretched pocketbooks. The worst came in June 1988 with a 566% devaluation of the córdoba and hikes of over 1,000% in the price of fuel and over 600% in the inter-urban transport rate, while strict control was maintained over the salaries of teachers, health workers and the public sector in general. The July 1988 issue of envoi described the negative effect of that watershed set of economic decisions.
HOW DO WE EXPLAIN ALL THIS CRUELTY? If all this contrast and accumulation of contradictions didn’t click in any revolutionary antennas, it was because they were dulled by all the slogans they were receiving then mumbling back. And they certainly didn’t make a dent in those who worked in the revolutionary process out of conviction because they were always ready to pardon human rights violations as the inevitable downside of a turbulent era. How else can we explain why so many celebrated the battering of opponents, sometimes with clubs, by what Tomás Borge baptized in the eighties as “divine mobs,” a practice unleashed again today by the peacetime Ortega government? Not a single Sandinista voice protested such barbarity and police complicity in the opinion pages of Barricada and El Nuevo Diario. What happened to the humanitarianism that drove so many to seek social change?
Power began to hypnotize and condition even the humanitarianism of priests who collaborated with the revolution, one of whom was once invited by the high army command to see the ferocious mastiffs trained to lunge directly at the testicles and jugular of counterrevolutionaries. He watched a dog attacking a soldier in thick protective clothing and described that scene, which made quite an impression on him, without a word of censure. Living under threat, anything goes. They were acts of defense in a war against imperialism. But the lacerated balls and necks belonged to Miskitus, Wiwilí peasants and Río Coco fishermen, not Reagan and his henchmen.
HOW FRIENDS AND SYMPATHIZERS WERE TREATEDWielding a stick, whipping up dogs and riddling enemies with shrapnel is nothing new. But how were friends, colleagues, collaborators, militants and the affiliated treated? Let’s take another scrutinizing and unprejudiced look at the past. Onofre Guevara, historical working class leader, prolific columnist and one of Nicaragua’s brightest political analysts, was a Barricada journalist in the eighties. He earned the post not only by his gifts as a writer but also by his revolutionary trajectory. But none of that carried any weight in how he was treated. His recollections reveal the tendency of the FSLN’s upper echelons to create a country of subordinates.
As Onofre tells it: “A couple of nights in the mid-eighties, when I had just wrapped up my work at Barricada or was just finishing, bodyguards showed up ordering me to appear at Tomás Borge’s house. They didn’t even ask if I wanted or had time to go. Once in his house, after a brief, cold and distant greeting, as if he didn’t know me, Tomás showed me a typewriter—we still weren’t using computers—and asked me to write a series of paragraphs about a given topic, without structuring it as an article. He then disappeared. After an hour or two, by then nearly 10 at night, a maid appeared with ‘dinner’: pieces of pipián [a type of summer squash] with some cheese on top.
“I didn’t see him again until he was good and ready to ‘dismiss me’ with the same coldness. Days later, Tomás was the official speaker at a political act at the César Augusto Silva convention center, previously the Country Club. As his speech unfolded, I began recognizing the ideas I had written at his house, although the structure and his customary grandiloquent phrases were his.
“Then in 1995, when he arrived to ‘take over’ Barricada and expel Carlos Fernando Chamorro as director, one of his henchmen at the time ordered that my last article not be published the next day, which pushed me to resign from the newspaper. When Tomás found out, he sent messengers—Lumberto Campbell and Mayra Reyes—to convince me to stay, and when I ignored their overtures he called me into his office to convince me himself. Once he realized it was fruitless, he threatened to prevent me from working in any other medium.”
I’M IN CHARGE, YOU’RE MY EMPLOYEEOnofre Guevara was one of many “ghost writers” in those years. The majority may not even have thought about the degree to which their good will and revolutionary ideals were put to the service of the vanity and hunger for power of the dominant ones of the moment, because there’s no clear limit in which service to the cause and servitude to the top brass appear in their chemically pure states. Onofre’s testimony emblematically unmasks the will to subordinate, sending a very clear message: I’m in charge, you’re my employee. The lack of so much as a thank you is evidence that it wasn’t even seen as asking a favor.
That same message was sent to many others who served the revolution and the new bosses. The Arenal Solidarity Group (Grudesa) of El Arenal, Masatepe, provided testimonies that illustrate another level of subordination: “We realized that the poorest members of our community were being sent to the most dangerous places in the war, while those with more ‘connections’ at the local level were sent to less dangerous places. We lost three boys from our community in the war. We didn’t consider it corruption at the time, but simply as our participation in the defense of the revolution. Now we understand the injustice of that policy much better.
“One youth of the time remembers the fear he felt when the authorities came looking for his brother to draft him into the army. Two other brothers were already in the mountains and their mother tried—unsuccessfully—to talk to the local authorities so her third son wouldn’t have to go to war. The family was very Sandinista, but they didn’t want all their sons to go to war. Now they understand the injustice of the policy of the time: multiple recruitments from poor families, while at the same time letting many youths from families with “resources and connections” stay at home. It seems that only the mother understood the injustice.”
THE “REVOLUTIONARY” INSTRUMENTALIZATIONThe Sandinista Army not only preserved the offspring of the local and national elites as if they were an endangered species. It also spared its career members—presumably there out of conviction—from the worst battles, instead sending draftees to risk their skin. And they often did so with the most basic equipment since some lieutenants and captains sold off military supplies for their own benefit in the thriving parallel market, replacing military backpacks with commonplace bean sacks.
If forcing the draft on people who didn’t share the revolutionary ideals was an abusive lack of respect for freedom of choice that disdained personal convictions, sending them out as cannon fodder without the appropriate supplies was deceitful and criminal. Party members, sympathizers, the apolitical, the indifferent and opponents alike were real men and women subjected to daily instrumentalization. The most flagrant example of that was the decision—only after a lot of resistance—to use the agrarian reform to create a species of armed kibutz as a buffer to the advance of the contras, who over the years were increasingly recognized as not just former National Guardsmen but a peasant guerrilla force opposed to the FSLN’s military, commercial and land policies. The self-proclaimed revolutionary FSLN should have done better than Western democracies on this issue, because instrumentalization is a charge at the heart of Marx’s critique of capitalism.
THE VICTIMS OF “REVOLUTIONARY” LUSTSexual instrumentalization, which is one of the worst forms, showed up a thousand ways. Getting it on with the daughters of the established bourgeoisie was a trophy that many comandantes awarded themselves and were given: women as a sumptuous article that proclaimed the winners’ new social status. Sexual abuse of subordinates was also scattered through all the ministries. Women of lower rank were part of the warrior’s well-deserved relaxation.
The victims of Tomás Borge’s lust are innumerable. I’m not mentioning names out of respect for them, but they include what were known as “internationalistas” (people from abroad who came to work in solidarity with the revolution), police personnel from Borge’s own ministry, subordinates, writers, daughters of writers, granddaughters of writers… They were seduced, tricked, extorted and raped. The libidinous comandante wanted to breed with three generations under the noses and to the delight of his bodyguards, friends and colleagues. Many knew about it and many feared it. I was among those who knew about it. What did I think at the time? That the aforementioned comandante didn’t have a drop of moral integrity. But who was going to stop him? And of course he wasn’t the revolution, just a rather defective part of its leadership.
The problem is that those silences and that absence of women’s rights had repercussions on the way the topic was seen and practiced “at the base.” Female victims of machista violence were required to abstain from denouncing their partners because they were “revolutionaries” and thus very important for the revolution. The women weren’t supposed to “weaken” unity in defense of the revolution. Love of the revolution put a silencer on any complaint and cut off the charges at the root. This violation of rights also included a witch-hunt of lesbians, who were the targets of a tacit prohibition. Some mention being obliged to denounce any lesbians who were part of the FSLN because they represented a “danger” to the revolution. Dozens of sanctions were applied for such interposed reasons.
THE DEBT WE ALL HAVEThis investigation doesn’t seek to cast a pestilent cloud over the achievements of the revolution, but rather to question the morality of the FSLN’s political-military methods and the abuses of its leaders. We owe it to the victims: the massacred and displaced Miskitus, the people interrogated by State Security, the farmers whose harvests were confiscated because they sold on the parallel market, the peasants whose lands were confiscated, those denied access to the Diplo¬tienda...
We owe it to history: because it’s dangerous to go forward without checking the rearview mirror and because no historiography is possible without points in which the threads of divergent narrations intertwine. One of these points consists of demonstrating the domination of an elite that subjected, subordinated and climbed on the back of both friends and enemies. This domination became more obvious from the moment in which those who had denied free trade and private property to small peasants later showed themselves to be devotees of private property and the business spirit in their own personal domain. It’s not the revolution that stands accused in this rereading, but rather the dominators and those of us who shored up that domination with our silence.
Today, like yesterday, we have the law of the dominant. We again have their abuses and arbitrariness, but now without ideals; only a simulation of them. It’s an enormous difference from the perspective that grants great importance to subjective elements. But an analysis that gives weight to the objective elements involves dissecting how those ideals shared by many people paved the way to this domination and its ignoring of concrete men and women.
To go into greater detail in an analysis that interweaves subjective and objective elements, I will examine the justifications of the abuses as introjected mechanisms of domination in a follow-up text, focusing on the rationalizations we draw on to explain and justify.
To be continued…
JOSÉ LUIS ROCHA IS A MEMBER OF THE ENVÍO EDITORIAL COUNCIL AND OF THE INSTITUTE OF SOCIOLOGY, PHILIPPS UNIVERSITY, MARBURG, GERMANY.