|Central American University - UCA
Number 457 | Julio 2019
40 years later: How women from both sides experienced the revolution
With an attentive and empathetic ear,
the author interviewed
9 mothers and wives of soldiers
from the Nicaraguan Resistance;
4 mothers of Sandinista soldiers;
and 11 wives and mothers
who actively participated in the Revolution.
The author dedicates these stories in her book
to all women from both sides
and “to the Nicaraguan youth,
in the hope that they value and respect
the women of their story.”
María Dolores Ferrero Blanco
Was there a female way of experiencing the revolution? The answer is affirmative. Yes, there was and it was very different if we’re talking about the women in the Nicaraguan Resistance’s scene or about Sandinista women’s viewpoint.
Both the women who were wronged by the Revolution and those who were protagonists or consciously suffered in it carry experiences and losses on their shoulders they want to share. They’re raising their voices. They’ve decided to break the silence.
Families in the war zones
After the triumph of the revolution, the new government’s first economic measures, especially the confiscations from those “close” to Somoza, were considered aggressive by a large part of the rural world. The ineptitude or baseness of certain Sandinistas who went into the mountain areas without adequate preparation or leadership capacity promoted the formation of groups of discontents known as the Milpas, the first expressions of a counterrevolutionary force that became known as the “Contra.” They later joined with former National Guard members and started to receive support in Honduras and in Miami.
Back in 1980, at the start of the peasants’ discontent, there were first clashes or sporadic attacks against people in the literacy campaign and in some cooperatives. Between 1982 and 1983, they turned into a continually worsening full-fledged war.
Since the war fronts were located on both sides of the Honduran border, they affected rural communities in the northern, central and Atlantic zones of Nicaragua, all of them with peasant livelihoods. The sons and husbands of the women of those zones were increasingly joining the Contra and many towns were left almost empty. The rest of the population, women, elders and children, couldn’t remain in their homes and moved to places that offered them greater safety, forced to radically change their lifestyles to one of two different forms, depending on whether they were the family of a Contra foot soldier or of a commander or military chief.
In the first case, they fled to the deepest mountains of the country, facing the dangers of crossfire in the middle of combats and bearing the miseries of war itself, living in rustic tents, planting what they could in temporary settlements and, if possible, staying close to their people’s military base. To reach them, they had to cross difficult blind spots and, walk long distances. Once there, they were assisted by those on the base when possible, which didn’t help avoid hunger and other shortages when provisions took a long time to arrive.
Some able to make it to Honduras worked in the fields on farms or ranches, or were in humanitarian refugee camps provided by the UN High Commision for Refugees, though not without problems, because Hondurans on the border frowned upon Nicaraguan refugees. From one side or the other, Hondurans considered them the reason for the combats and associated them with dangerous or unstable situations. As a consequence, according to those who settled there, anyone who could hide their Nicaraguan nationality would do so.
In the second case, the families of commanders and certain military chiefs, who could leave Nicaragua with more prestige and better economic possibilities, would settle in Honduran towns or cities, spending the war years in places close to the military bases or even on them. In general, all their material needs were met, to the point where their children could go to school on the base or in a nearby town.
“They were taken by force”
Women of the Contra were affected mainly by being left alone to raise the children. As they began remembering, all interviewed who were widows, were far their husbands or whose sons had been killed in the war would express having suffered great afflictions. This was particularly true for those who were poor and had been dependent on their absent or dead husbands’ work. Even those in better economic conditions felt a similar bitterness due to the loss of their husband or sons or both at the same time. And all of them felt that way for having had to move away from home and being forced to abandon their belongings, which they generally found destroyed when they returned. The consequences of the war were especially hard for mothers whose older sons had left for combat or who were left alone to care for little ones.
With respect to the draft, when the Sandinista obligatory military service was introduced in September 1983, the mothers’ complaints were unanimous, regardless of their economic level. And this discontent increased when, alongside the intensification of the war, it was seen that boys even younger than the draft age of 16 were being conscripted when their physical attributes made them especially useful.
Boys reaching draft age were to show up to an Army base and if they didn’t, they were pursued and detained. There were many expressions of this, such as “they were forced to go and if they didn’t want to, they would be tied up and taken off,” or “they were caught at school…”, “as they were leaving the cinema…” Mothers tried to hide their young sons, pretending they were sick, or would send them far away with some relative. Sons who left the family nest for that reason would also flee to the mountains or cross into Honduras, followed by a never-ending parade of soldiers’ mothers, daughters-in-law, grandchildren…long, long lines of women and children.
In many cases, that rejection of the government draft would cause a wave of boys from peasant families who had previously been politically indifferent or even Sandinistas or Sandinista sympathizers to join the Contra ranks. And it wasn’t just one-sided: rather than fleeing the war, some boys would join the opposite band to the one that wanted to recruit them by force.
They didn’t see their dead sons
As time went on, the deaths increased and if a son died in the war, his mother would find out, usually after some time, through a telegram of some sort or from a fellow soldier who found out or was a witness. It was normal not to see the dead son or be able to bury him in a known place, or even know where he had been buried. In the best of circumstances, if a mother found out where her son was buried, she would give him a family burial years later, when they were able to exhume the body, but there were very few such cases.
Sons who participated in and killed during the war marked such an important milestone for their families, in that their names were often lost in the narrative. Mothers who were interviewed frequently referred to their sons by the pseudonyms they were given back then or would call them “the comandante.” Being accustomed to hearing them called by such names by everyone seems to add a sense of pride for the mothers seeing the prestige their sons had reached and the mythification of their achievements and feats during their years in combat.
Another longer-term effect was produced among those who had been small children during the war years. Many children were left for a long time with their grandmothers because their young mothers went to the front lines with their husbands, or would couple with a new man when their husband died and the children from the first marriage were not integrated into the new family. In all these cases they would be raised by the grandmother who would take on the maternal role. Sometimes the absent mother would sporadically visit her children, even though she didn’t live with them. At others they would lose all contact if the mother’s new partner didn’t accept them or if she distanced herself for some other reason.
Mothers on the Sandinista side
Sandinista families suffered much less moving around than Contra families during the war years because most of them were of urban origin far from the border and didn’t have to leave their cities.
The bulk of the pre-revolutionary guerrillas, and later the second and third generation Sandinista militants, as well as those who were drafted by the 1983 obligatory military service law, were young high school and university students, state workers, professionals and others of numerous occupations and vocations, almost all from Managua, Masaya, Granada, León, Chinandega…
Even though their sons left for the war, the rest of the family was able to stay home. What these mothers did share with the Contra mothers was the logical concern for their son’s fate and the high number of deaths every day.
The draft was received in different ways by Sandinista mothers. Some accepted it stoically and their young sons and other male relatives would enroll with the illusion of participating in a great project, with a patriotic, militant spirit, ready to face real danger. Expressions such as “the nights of insomnia started,” and “each phone call was torture,” represent the suffering of those mothers who wanting to be consistent with their deep commitment to social justice and defense of the revolution.
Other mothers, and sometimes the family unit in general, emphatically rejected military service and many young men ended up being recruited forcefully, just as they were in the rural zones. A good number of parents who had the means left for the US, Venezuela or Costa Rica so their sons wouldn’t have to go to war.
Couples in the revolution
Couples’ relationships were harmed both during the insurrection against Somoza and during the war to defend the revolution. Mothers became more and more involved through their children. They had begun by protecting their children against Somoza in the time of the insurrection and helping them with tasks they had taken on, and would then end up being militants or placing themselves in just as much risk when they would take on different tasks. In the majority of cases they would hide their participation from their husbands to avoid being stopped or banned from continuing, which led to a logical distancing of affection or eventual separation of the couple.
During the 1980s, the prevailing machismo in society—from which Sandinista militants were not exempt—intensely affected couples’ relationships. Men couldn’t seem to deal very well with the women’s absence, which was due to the demanding dedication required by the political tasks of that time. Frequently, even while sharing the same ideals, the husbands or partners would complain about the women’s long work hours—which didn’t happen the other way around, according to the females’ testimonies—and arguments would increase with time.
In other cases, the men would devalue the women’s commitment to their political work if it was less relevant, or would claim they were being taken advantage of because they earned so little or even nothing, comparing them to their own positions, with much better pay and/or greater prestige.
There were separations due to the lack of political understanding, even when they were not accompanied by machista or possessive attitudes. The vital dedication of some women to the cause caused distancing when not shared by their partners or husbands that could not be overcome in many cases and would end up in divorce.
“Seeking bourgeois women”
There were also separations resulting from the changing circumstances both before and after the revolutionary triumph. During the years before it, clandestine Sandinista men would only relate to the guerrilla women and unions between them were more frequent.
Once the FSLN was in power, leaving clandestinity led many of them to change partners. Some of those interviewed regretted that most of the male guerrilla leaders left their partners for others “with a surname,” a practice that had already begun before the triumph. They would look for “bourgeois women,” secretly attracted to that which they had previously been fighting against. Likewise, a number of young women from the bourgeoisie “put on an olive green uniform and went to be in the quarters during the last year, or even on July 20, 1979, even though they were hardly Claudia Chamorro”, the historical guerrilla from the Granada aristocracy who was killed during a confrontation with the National Guard in 1977.
It seems that after the triumph, being a guerrilla was an added attraction for some young women from higher social positions. This was mentioned frequently in my interviews.
A widespread “culture of silence”
A thorny issue that came up on several occasions within the interviews was that some of the most prominent leaders had a double or triple life hidden from their partner. Husbands were even sent on missions outside the country so their superior could hit on the attractive wife who was left behind.
In other cases, the supposedly “official” female partner was sent out of Nicaragua, or to the mountains or to training, supposedly to improve in a certain task. Most of the women who put up with this behavior just resigned themselves. Those who didn’t suffered the consequences of a sad and deep disappointment with their superiors’ or fellow Sandinistas.
During this research I detected the existence of generalized domestic violence, covered up by the “culture of silence,” as psychologist Martha Cabrera calls it. Several trained Sandinista women, aware of the domestic violence that existed in the country, decided to address the problem of domestic abuses or harassment with other women less educated or trained in the issue who had shared it with them during private meetings or in trusted circles. When they tried to make them visible to official authorities of the party, however, they were not received and the initiative was never accepted.
Many women affirm that harassment was intense, above all by those in high military ranks towards those in lower positions. According to interviewees, the fact that fellow Sandinistas contemplated and consented to the harassment as something normal contributed to this.
Present in these histories is also the “country of many griefs” of which Martha Cabrera also speaks. Pain due to the losses in the war; pain from gender violence of different sorts never acknowledged nor manifested; and pain over disappointments resulting from political disenchantment or personal disillusion with leaders they had admired oozes through all the cracks in these stories.
Because “they were our children”
The repercussions on children of their parents’ militancy or due to the war greatly differ from family to family, even though almost all felt affected.
It has been complicated to classify women either solely as “mothers” or as “mothers with political participation” because in most of the Sandinista mothers’ stories they always supported their children’s involvement one way or another. Some lent their houses to hide friends or weapons, and almost always ended up having serious implications due to their eagerness to protect them and remain by their side. As one woman interviewed admitted: “We’d offer our homes as safe houses, knowing how we were exposing ourselves; but they were our children.” Other times, they were “recognized collaborators, providing different types of support without being militants, and less often becoming first-generation members of the FSLN themselves.
In all cases, including those most involved motu propio, they constantly highlighted the maternal role as something primordial in their feelings and memories, including their take on the meaning of those years of their life and their activism. Their children are mentioned time and time again. Meanwhile, for the children, the effects of their mothers’ political commitment intertwine with their own experiences as militants.
“He says I abandoned him”
In the memories of these children, later revealed to their mothers, there is a disparity between those who stayed almost totally under their grandmothers’ care during the stages of the insurrection and the post-triumph, and those born afterwards, during the 1990s, when they were directly raised by their mothers.
It’s also important that many children have sublimated their memories from the 1980s to a large degree. One finds a curious mix of reproach towards the mothers, along with a desire to justify them, a tendency to minimize the effects their own mothers recognize were evident in those times.
Among those born during the stages in which the mothers were more immersed in their political work, there are also attitudes of contained rage or resentment that come out involuntarily, or open expressions of envy towards siblings born after the triumph of the revolution. There are signs of resentment, sensations of abandonment or incomprehension around the mothers’ dedication to “that” which took them away from home and would frequently distance them from the city or country. Phrases from mothers such as “he experienced it during the height of his adolescence and he still brings it up”, “he has a lot of resentment and still can’t accept it”, or “he says I abandoned him” are very frequent in these stories, sometimes accepted with serenity and at others with feelings of guilt.
In some exceptional cases there were mothers who influenced their children and got them involved in the FSLN. What’s more, there were cases in which both were involved without the other knowing it it, respecting the required clandestinity. The mothers’ degree of identification with the struggle against the Contra was so great in some cases that the children’s memories of their mothers’ reactions when they were called up by the draft were surprising and confusing. Their mothers didn’t cry when they said goodbye but encouraged them not to “behave as cowards.”
Likewise, the moments of the worst injustices, of the violent persecution of the youth, deaths for trivial reasons, provoked more indignation than sadness in the mothers. And when the fatal news of a son’s death arrived, they would even hold back their tears and try not to fall apart, in a last act of rebellion and dignity “to not give the ‘guardias’ the pleasure.”
Among so many heartbreaking testimonies it’s common to find integrity, hiding weakness or debility, thinking that this way they were more worthy of their sons, in harmony with their thoughts, sure of being on the right side.
Marks left on the children
Sandinista mothers still remember the unlimited time they dedicated to their political tasks, before and after the triumph of the revolution. They regret not only the deaths of their sons, but also the aftereffects that marked the survivors for the rest of their lives. Children who were small during the war, continued to blame the mothers for their absence for many years, even in full adulthood, or because as adolescents they had to change track or leave their studies.
Reproach was frequent towards mothers for staying away from Nicaragua for long periods before or after the triumph, for long work hours outside the home, particularly if those absences were on weekends or the work consisted of caring for other children or youth. This feeling of abandonment due to life in exile, or to the absorbing militancy or daily absences was almost a norm.
There were also cases in which the children were never involved with their parents’ ideals. Forced or grudgingly, they would listen or accompany them to the FSLN activities. As the years went by, there were further reproaches in cases in which the parents separated due to the intense occupation of one of them. Or in lesser cases, in both rural zones and the capital, some youth couldn’t avoid the influence of alcohol or drugs. They didn’t seem able to find their own way and sought compensations or evasions for their lack of self-esteem, disillusion with their leaders or lack of motivating interests.
Mothers confess to having had these faults, but in general justify them. They threw themselves into their work because they felt that was what they should do. They point out that they made their children understand that commitment was their duty and also the opportunity to leave a better, more just world for them. Even so, there’s a shared feeling that when they had children during the revolutionary stage they had no doubts about the priority of their political work, whereas when they had children during the 1990s, a very common expression was “I stuck closer to them.” So, they express greater or lesser guilt about the time spent with their children depending on when it was.
All this doesn’t hinder the existence of intense satisfaction during special moments. Above all during the early period after the triumph, a very high number of youths—whether children of Sandinistas or not—became euphorically involved in volunteer tasks for which they were convened all around the country, such as coffee picking or the literacy campaign, and in general they have very good memories of these experiences. Many told their mothers that they remember those years as very good ones. They expressed admiration for their mother’s maternal commitment, despite the mothers themselves thinking that these memories are not exempt from a certain intent to sweeten a time that was difficult for them.
The embryo of all mistakes
The testimonies of all these women also contain criticisms of the years before and after the revolution. Many deliberately manifested their desire to bring this criticism out into the open so new generations could know the errors committed and avoid them in the future.
One of the things the interviewees stressed and acknowledged is still hard to accept was the many abuses committed by those who called themselves “Sandinistas,” even though the interviewees didn’t consider them worthy of that term.
They attribute it in part to the lack of people of proven preparation and honesty for the many positions of responsibility, because the victory came without having had enough time to organize cadres who could respond to the institutional and administrative needs. On the other hand was the leaders’ extreme youth and inexperience, the average age being 20. And on many occasions, the ambition of some who saw the position they took as an opportunity to become wealthy—a behavior they’d seen during the more than 40 years of the Somoza dictatorship—had consequences in numerous dramatic cases.
The youth that had overthrown the dictatorship, “the kids”, in very little time had to go from being guerrillas to governing a poor and destroyed country. And victory had arrived a lot sooner than even the most optimistic could have imagined.
The fact that all of a sudden they had power in their hands was the embryo of almost all the mistakes, including the three most widespread ones: the repression “to protect the Revolution,” the Agrarian Reform’s excessive confiscations and the obligatory military service.
/h2> “People came to offend us”
The Contra side criticized the social sources that fed the war fronts of both sides, affecting the poorest. “For both bands the war was countryside against countryside or countryside against the city, because there were two positions. But not even 0.5% of wealthy people nor politicians died here, on either side. It was a war of peasants and workers,” according to Guillermo Miranda, a former member of the National Guard’s EEBI (Infantry Basic Training School) and then a member of the Contra.
Contra women emphatically criticized the unsuitability of the new Sandinista leaders who came to their towns to occupy positions of responsibility, which was a criticism corroborated by some Sandinista women. Both agree that the very scarce or total lack of formation were also elements that damaged the revolutionary process.
As the war intensified the Sandinistas tried by any method to obtain information about the enemy, employing incredible quotas of brutality, such as acts that occurred in Pantasma, Jinotega, in 1983. In this case, the interviewees blamed the area’s FSLN political secretary, a man who didn’t know the mentality or logic of peasant society and had decided that anyone who showed him absolute obedience was loyal, and anyone who didn’t was a counterrevolutionary. The attitude of Yali’s political secretary, César Barquero, cited by one of those interviewed, also caused greater rejection among the people.
Even without going into such dramatic cases, expressions of denunciation were frequent from Contra women when referring to the new Sandinista authorities: “People with no preparation came to offend us,” “they would pull us out of our houses,” or “they harassed and threatened us” …
The arbitrary confiscation of many properties was also very serious. With the preconceived dogmatic theory that collective was always better than individual and faced with the reality of the horrible distribution of agricultural property in the country, quickly enacted confiscation decrees led to massive confiscations that adhered to the specific interpretations of those in charge.
In some places, such as Matagalpa and Matiguás, Sandinista mayors and Council members of that period still maintain today that there was a lot of abuse of Decree 38, which confiscated properties from those “close” to Somoza. This affected farms as large as 2,000 hectares and as small as 35 hectares. And it wasn’t because the owners were counterrevolutionaries, as many Sandinistas, including old guerrilla fighters from the war against the Somoza dictatorship, were equally affected.
In Matagalpa there were owners of confiscated properties who took their deeds to the Nicaraguan Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) to be reviewed because they didn’t think they were included and when they returned to see how their process was going, they discovered their properties were now under INRA’s name. In some of those cases, those responsible justified themselves by claiming debts previously acquired by the owners, always unjustifiable for those affected.
Corruption before and after 1979
and the “Piñata” after 1990
Corruption was another aspect repeatedly mentioned by the Sandinista women interviewed. It was revealed in very different spheres of daily life and spread like an oil spill throughout the 1980s. The economic crisis, along with the clear laxness toward demands for administrative cleansing, led to the generalization of deplorable habits.
In 1990, after the surprise of the FSLN loss in the elections, they started seriously reflecting about the causes of that defeat. Criticism of previous behavior of many leaders intensified. Several former militants or former guerrillas who had seen the light years before say this behavior existed since the beginning of the revolution. There were, for example, “people standing guard” at the doors of the Nicaraguan embassies in several countries who took turns day and night to see what positions they could get once the revolution triumphed. When Somoza left the country and his staff left the embassies, those who had been waiting outside locked themselves inside the buildings and didn’t allow anyone in until they got the positions they wanted. There were also many donations from several countries that were under these people’s custody and caused serious suspicions.
This didn’t happen in all the embassies, but there are abundant examples of cases where abuses were committed while young fighters and collaborators were living in the city with miserable salaries, or in the war fronts, suffering all types of miseries.
During the Sandinista government years, staff from those embassies also frequently bragged about their trips, which included family, to different countries and of having done expensive shopping—which they had never before been allowed to do—all charged to costs of representation.
Another fact insistently denounced by both Contra and Sandinista women was the appropriation of houses, businesses or land from people who went into exile or fled when the Revolution triumphed. Years later, two months after the FSLN lost the 1990 elections but had not yet handed over power, the party’s leadership started a surprising distribution of properties, which was dubbed “the Piñata.”
It was a huge surprise when notable FSLN members were seen occupying abandoned houses, furniture and all, as well as haciendas and factories their owners had left hastily. The most repeated reasoning by many in high positions to justify these actions was that “they couldn’t lose it all to the electoral defeat. They had suffered for too many years, had even faced death, so they should be compensated.”
In general terms, the governing Sandinistas’ tolerance of and indifference toward corruption was one of the greatest discontents of the 1980s. It was also obvious that along with the excesses of certain FSLN leaders, there was a lack of vigilance by their subordinates.
“They didn’t give me anything”
The inertia of the bad habits is also reflected in some of the testimonies. For example, when I asked some interviewees how the FSLN behaved with its ranks when they lost the elections, one of the responses, which summarized many others, was: “With me they weren’t good because they didn’t even give me a small house or a plot of land to plant but they gave it to many others.”
Many grassroots militants—and not only the known cases from higher ranks—would have been satisfied and content with individual appropriations if they’d received part of the sum, having no concern about the lack of differentiation between the party’s patrimony and individual property. Instead the rooted culture of political clientelism and nepotism, experienced as normal for so many years, emerged. The conception of loyalty towards the governing party being tied to the possibility of obtaining something extra was visibly demonstrated as embedded in the collective self-image after the Somoza dictatorship.
Not all of the higher ranks participated in this distribution, but many did and so did their closest staff members. It was natural, in these circumstances, that the poorest should feel displaced, even though criticism at times wasn’t so much from the perspective of not being exemplary but more likely of not being included in the distribution.
One of the issues worthy of the greatest general disgust was the arbitrary and disorderly retiring of military personnel after the war. Some were retired by seniority, others by rank and there were different forms of compensation according to different plans. Privileges granted by the FSLN to military personnel has extended into current times, in an implicit alliance for their mutual benefits, with exaggerated pensions for high-ranking positions and the exhibition of an inappropriate standard of living.
A “Cuban style” was imposed
All those errors created an enormous gap between the leadership and the people, aggravated by the servile behavior of assistants and intermediate positions, especially in relation to the “nine Comandantes” who made up the National Directorate and were the object of previously inconceivable immunity and reverence. Both politicians of the new State and the general population maintained an attitude of recognition and submission before this leadership that translated into an elevation that was very harmful for relations. Greatly expressive as an example of this submission to their authority was the popular chant: “National Directorate, order us!”…
Those leaders surrounded themselves with assistants who worshiped them and would separate them from the common folks due—according to several of those interv¬iewed—to the longing to imitate Cuban customs, so influential during that time. Admiration for the secret services of Cuba and East Germany, both of which were obsessed with the security of their authorities, was a determining factor.
The “Cuban style” regrettably mentioned one way or another in many interviews, was imposed. Until then, the relationship of the militants with their leaders had been horizontal, but in many cases the Cuban influence fostered ways previously unknown in the FSLN and when they were adopted in the treatment between members, everything changed.
“There was no ‘comandante’ nor ‘coronel’ nor ‘major.’ Carlos Fonseca was Carlos Fonseca and Turcios was Turcios and you didn’t stand up when anyone walked in and you could say whatever you wanted to them. All that changed. The Cubans arrived and they started to bring other ways, some incredible reverence. They would enter and all at once, ‘Everybody up!’ And everyone would stand up for the person entering, and one would think: But…what’s going on here?!? It’s a human being!... and I knew him from before. If that’s the way it’s going to be, then I’m going to act like a conservative woman and they’ll have to stand up when I enter! If you didn’t call them ‘comandante,’ how disrespectful! I thought to myself: I wonder who’s going to straighten this out…”
It wasn’t only the formal or protocol distance the comandantes were imposing and consenting to for their base, but that they seemed more and more attracted to a life of luxuries they’d never had before.
Some leaders manifested an interest in appearing as members of a class higher than their own, a desire to be “liked by the bourgeoisie.” This was clearly noticeable in a trivial but significant anecdote we were told: certain old capitalists or intellectuals who sympathized with or were allies of the revolution would “stage” restaurants with waiters and select environments to teach the comandantes how to behave, to imitate customs and details established by protocols typical of the upper classes, “to learn good manners.”
All those defects, a consequence of greed for power and money and authoritarianism that the leaders weren’t able to eradicate nor redirect, appear in the interviews.
echo or continuity
Faced with the commotion caused by the revolution’s loss in the 1990 elections, there were some attempts to do a self-criticism that could be useful for the future.