“We Erred to Win...”
René Mendoza Vidaurre
Revolutions are going through an intense period of reflection, debate and review of their projects and goals: what did we do and what do we do now? The questions are long, wide and deep, and they must be answered with all the complexity they merit, but also to the point, concretely and precisely.
That is the aim of his work by René Mendoza, first-prize winner in envío's Third Annual Writers' Contest. We have made our decision based on the quality of its literary form and content and on all its constructively realistic critique, field work and concrete contributions.
Its length, quite obviously, goes beyond the size fixed in the contest rules. The author originally sent us only part of his research, the case study of El Arenal. In conversations with him, we asked that he complete the work with the section on Wiwilí, mentioned in the introduction, to provide a more complete basis for comparison and reflection.
René Mendoza has not candy-coated his analysis, either to make it more palatable or to fit it into a nice, neat hypothesis with no dangling questions. At times, his arguments appear to lack subtlety, but it is there to be searched for and found. The analysis is also at times contradictory, but so is the peasant reality from which it taken its life. Precisely for these reasons and not in spite of them, we believe this to be en important work for this period.
—The envío Editorial Staff
“This time rationalization was wrong. The polls failed, and so did the theoreticians and strategists. Many things happen that can’t be rationalized, so before analyzing, we should listen and listen.”
—Social worker in El Arenal
“That wasn’t just some poker hand we played badly and lost. We erred to win. Because we’re going to win peace. We never want to hear another shot and nothing will stop us.”
—Peasant from Plan de Grama, Wiwilí
After the deluge: In darkness and in rage The elections were free, orderly and open. Nonetheless, on February 26, from the first cock's crow, peasants relived the terror-filled days of Somocismo. Tears, orphaned streets, silence, families closeted together against the world. “And you, what'll you do now?” Every minute of that day was minutely counted, every step carefully recorded. Part of the people interpreted the defeat at first as the return of the National Guard, the corrupt and powerful town judges, the local paid spies, the war. For another part, it was 1979 all over again. The bells of the hermitage were rung, timidly or scandalously; religion, too, was celebrating, together with the land barons, the FSLN's defeat.
The feeling of fear became one with the existential crisis. What do I do now? What of my family? My land? The cooperative? Then Daniel's last words as the day broke that same morning: “We feel proud of having contributed a little bit of dignity to this unjust world, divided between the powerful and the weak. Thank you, brother Nicaraguans!” Sadness swelled over many faces, even those of the “non-losers.” As one peasant observed, “It was as though all the mothers in Nicaragua had died.”
On February 27, President Daniel Ortega spoke again to the people, promising to “govern from below.” Despite his stalwartness, the middle-level FSLN cadres in El Arenal, a rural area of Masaya, remained shut inside their houses like hopeless orphans. They visited no one, not even their own militants. When they finally went out it wag only to attend a regional assembly in Jinotepe. When they returned it was only to “bajar líneas.” It’s a telling phrase, that one: líneas are political lines, and the verb bajar means to lower, to send down.
Dependence is profound. They didn’t take any líneas from the local level up to Jinotepe, to the national level. They only brought them down. When now, more than ever, the people needed to talk, to be heard, the leaders remained closed to the comarca, as rural districts are called. With this traditional work style, one must ask: Is the electoral defeat so surprising?
In Wiwilí, too, February 26 was a day without a dawn, hours of vacillation and confusion. “I couldn't believe what I was hearing, so I went down early to the local FSLN official, but he didn't have anything to say to us,” said a peasant woman from the village called Plan de Grama. Finally, though, the party leaders from central Wiwilí summoned militants from all over the municipality to a meeting. And at about dusk, surrounded by a large part of the population, they descended the hill in a demonstration, triumphantly jeering UNO supports. The multiform image of the war—threats, kidnappings, deaths—was crowded out of people's minds, for the moment, by the spirit of Sandino. At least in Wiwilí there was space for people's feelings, thanks to the greater tact of some local leaders.
The FSLN lost; the empire didn’t win “The people are never wrong,” goes the old refrain, like an immutable law. “The people can be wrong, but they know how to rectify [their errors],” said President Daniel Ortega on Feb 27. Did the people make an error? And what of the leaders? Are they ever wrong? Did the FSLN as a party err or didn’t it? Are the people still revolutionary or are they no longer? Does the vote mean less anti-imperialism? Where are we heading? Are revolutions in the world finished? What is revolution and what is socialism? And, most insistent of all, Why did we lose? They’re big questions, theoretical ones. Do they even make sense to the peasantry after ten years of revolution? In Plan de Grama, a sweaty peasant, machete in hand and rifle on his shoulder, answers them all, in his own way: “We erred to win...peace.”
The people have sacrificed scores of years for the hope of a more just and humane society. Their hopes have be continually postponed; only their sacrifices have not. February 25, 1990, translated a decade of wear and tear, of threats and uncertainty, accumulated hours of skipped heartbeats, into a vote. Never have people thought so much about their vote as did most Nicaraguans. Many things came into it—crosses, rifles, tears, land, money, fiestas...
It’s not good enough to state theoretically that the war and its child, the economic crisis, “caused” the Sandinistas' electoral defeat. We don't deny their dead weight on the results; people voted with their plates empty and a pistol at their temples. Both were there, just as they were when the FSLN won in 1984. And as they will be in the future. The empire has always provoked economic crises and conflict in the poor third world countries; nothing indicates that it will change.
The economic crisis and war conditioned not only the electoral process, but the whole course of the revolution. But they didn't determine it. Only the power of the peasants and other popular sectors, through the struggle between classes, determines a revolution. We, in spite of everything, will determine our history, not war or the empire.
It’s also not good enough to say, as the empire does, that low-intensity war won. The empire mistakenly believes that the peoples' hopes were not only postponed but buried. The Romans and the religious hierarchy made the same mistake when they crucified Jesus. Even though the poor always pay the price of such mistakes, their hopes will never be extinguished.
“Before, we were ashamed, we couldn't even speak,” said Carmen, speaking specifically of other peasant women like herself. “The revolution untied our tongues. That infuriated those who wanted us to remain always like nesting hens. Now, if they don't fulfill their promises, they’ll feel those promises around their necks like a yoke on a mule. Doña Violeta shouldn't forget that people can throw her out just like they put her in. She knows now that it's the people who rule.” Sandino's revolution remains. More than ever we need the Sandinismo of the artisan Sandino and his peasant army, and the popular movement of Carlos Fonseca.
Finally, it’s not good enough to say the US bought the elections with its $9 million. UNO dollars did flow through the campaign; “One woman went around giving out $3 per person,” said a peasant in Venecia. But if 55% of the votes were “bought” for $3 apiece, the word loses its meaning.
The FSLN lost; the empire didn't win. Many people just didn't feel represented by the FSLN. They had to “change their luck,” not so much opting for a counterrevolutionary project as obliging the FSLN to change, recovering it as a revolutionary party, a party of the poor. That was the essence of their “punishment” vote.
We lost to win the FSLN. This idea forces us to stop and take it seriously, to turn one eye back over the past years and the other toward the future. The FSLN was wrong in its policy of national and international negotiations. In honor of “national unity,” it pampered the bourgeoisie while the structures of the poor were broken up by the war—and by middle-level Sandinista cadres. In 1933, Sandino achieved peace, then at the end he made a mistake. The price that time was rivers of peasant blood in the mountains and the postponement of the hopes of the poor until 1979. Now peace has again been achieved, but at what price? Is the February 25 electoral reversal another postponement of their hopes?
The work on these pages, the fruit of collective reflection, very modestly hopes to cultivate some seeds in the post-election stubble that will contribute to our county’s integrated development. The sowers of these seeds are peasants in the villages and districts of Wiwilí, Las Segovia, and those in the districts around Masatepe, Masaya. In other words, one zone of war and one of “peace.” With this work we hope to show something of the naked revolution in the peasant lands. We do so because there’s nothing to hide and because the truth will always make us free. This revolution seeks to be neither praised nor buried with words, but to open its deeds, to illuminate with its truth and remain alive.
Theoreticians, almost by tradition, speak in general terms and give generalized explanations for the FSLN's electoral defeat: economic crisis, the war sometimes even interpreted as just the draft. They often don't get a grip on the experiences lived by the people. We're going to try another road: use concrete realities as a point of departure, convinced that if they’re seen from the perspective of what happened after February 25, they will profile the electoral reverse and get closer to important aspects of the Sandinista revolution.
Ten years of revolution; ten premises The war has had an atrocious impact on the population. There was unquestionably a vote against the war, for peace and economic well-being, but it wasn't against the revolution. It was against imperialism. The FSLN didn't decree the war; the empire did. But that vote also expresses that “you shouldn't fight the big guy.” Both expressions constitute a geopolitical reality and a popular survival instinct, allowing a glimpse at the space that exists to creatively, pragmatically and integrally transform ourselves so as to develop.
We also must not delude ourselves that we’ll see imperialism's casket pass by and the promised land descend from heaven just with the absence of war and economic crisis. Nicaragua is an underdeveloped country, in the empire's “backyard.” The question is: what do we do about it? From this perspective, let's look at these ten basic premises:
1. The dialectic between local power structures and national ones is the backbone of a revolution. It’s the fundamental element for weaving together and carrying out a revolutionary economic, political-military development strategy. It's the key to reorganizing and renovating the popular movement. It’s the medium in which new men and women are forged as real historic subjects.
2. Local and national reality are delineated through two different discourses. The first is comarcal , the space of peasant identity. It's a local language in which family and economic problems, problems of basic necessities such as water, are the order of the day. At that level, polities is no obstacle; all can be reconciled. The other is national (and necessarily international), a politicized discourse in which political party platforms are debated; words such as militarism, religion, national liberation go out into the air and never touch ground; the fight between parties over their “almost” irreconcilable differences overshadows the class struggle. To see the first through the prism of the second is a crass error.
3. Nicaragua’s tradition of pacts leaves the popular majorities aside. This “concertation” between powers, between benefactors, overlooks the peasants' social, political and economic order in their own space, the comarca. To gamble everything on cutting a deal with the opposition, without other renovating elements, will always lead to the defeat of the revolutionary project.
4. Sandinismo is a movement, not a traditional agreement-making party, or a non-agreement-making vanguard. Although a movement, the Sandinista Front acted like a party. And lost. Overprotecting life can lead to death. The challenge of Sandinismo is to be local and national, associative and class-based. Without autonomy, there's no vanguard. But even more: it has to become a movement again.
5. The umbilical cord to those who killed Sandino has been cut. The armed counterrevolution is imperialism’s creation. Quantitatively, it remained almost the same in its final days as in its peak years; qualitatively, it has changed. It no longer carries the Somocista legacy in its structural logic, or through National Guard Colonel Enrique Bermúdez and his hundreds of officers. This is what is meant by the strategic defeat of the counterrevolution. Those who until recently made up the contra forces are peasants, who, despite acts of vandalism, kidnappings, tortures and killings, have a different logic. They’re as much a product of the FSLN’s political, military and economic errors as of the war itself
6. Contra demobilization and reconciliation were only possible by voting for “their” side. Paradoxically, it was the only way people saw to end imperialism's relentless pursuit and the FSLN’s rejection of a popular economic strategy. That’s what the expression “we erred to win” means to a considerable number of voters.
7. The region led by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo is the revolution's main opposition party. “UNO [one] isn't any,” said Daniel Ortega during the campaign, drawing on an old Nicaraguan saying. But within the religious structure, it’s all.
8. Religion is synonymous with dependence. It is also a local, national and universal force—pure heart and symbolism. And in our country, politics breathes with the heart and is expressed in symbols.
9. The revolution didn’t fight the dependency syndrome. In the landlord-peasant dependency relationship, for example, the state simply tried to substitute itself for the landlord, preserving the same top-down structure. From there it made deals with other “lords,” religious ones included. The bill from the peasants came at election time.
10. The dilemma for revolutionaries is how to move beyond just understanding the problem of domination. How do we build a new structure and way of working that will undermine the bourgeois social order and construct an alternative social model that begins from the local-national dialectic? Full circle to premise 1.
The making of a revolution ...without peasants The imperialist strategy against Nicaragua, known as low-intensity warfare, has won a big tactical battle, but it hasn’t won the war. The country is economically destroyed; more than 50,000 lives, including those of counterrevolutionaries, have been mowed down by the war, leaving thousands of disabled, more thousands of orphans, families divided. All these achievements are in line with US imperialism's historic tradition and the essence of its democracy.
Paradoxically, and erroneously, the Sandinistas responded with high intensity to this “low-intensity” political-military war and its socioeconomic and psychological effects. When the enemy drew its bead on the peasantry, the revolution wasn't really at their side. When the economy became the target, the revolution tried to cut a deal with the bourgeois minority and established a top-down relation with the popular sectors. The former didn’t produce very good results; the latter produced adverse ones.
In the last five years, the peasants and urban masses were left increasingly out of national political economic decision-making. The revolutionary government made big state agroindustrial projects and top-down cooperatives its priority, and fought inflation by harassing small urban merchants, identified as speculators. Hindsight makes wise men of us all; we can now see that the errors, both political and economic, really began in the first seven years—including the insurrectional period.
The Sandinista revolution was born in the countryside and consolidated in the informal sector of poor urban neighborhoods, or barrios. Both of these sectors, not just the urban one, made up the base of the insurrection and the final victory in 1979. Over the years the leaders, who came from the city, went to the countryside and worked clandestinely; after a time they returned, fought in the insurrectional barrios, won rank and became “new” men, heroes of the triumph. Meanwhile, the peasants, who had always lived in the clandestinity of history, were again relegated to it, still “old” men. Alongside this was another process: since the conspiracy against Somocismo demanded clandestinity, the political-military strategy was secured through líneas, top-down directives. That work style still exists today, and the apparatus that generated both the directives and the style was institutionalized.
Before 1977, the representatives of the world beyond the comarca decided the comarca’s course. Between 1977 and 1979, the insurrection created an underground horizontal relationship between the local power structure and the “outside” one. But this dialectic relationship was only relative; the insurrection simply obscured the local-national dichotomy, as well as its class character: for that brief period, it was “all against the dictatorship.” In this insurrectional school of struggle, the comarcas were seen as seed banks of potential FSLN guerrillas, shields for personal protection, hiding places for arms. At that time, the FSLN sought dependable cadres willing to carry out the line, the strategy, to overthrow the dictatorship, no questions asked. After the triumph, these same cadres received political training and were returned to the comarcas—sometimes inexplicably not their own—and waited dependably, dependently, for new directives, still no questions asked.
Converted into representatives of the outside world, the comarcas' Sandinista heroes became unidirectional conveyer belts. The local cadre-people relationship also became top-down, inverting its proper character of responding to the comarcas' interests. This admittedly had a lot to do with the intensification of the war, but that, too, seen from the comarca, was external.
Local cadres weren't concerned with organizing and mobilizing the comarcas; they were never taught to see the locals as historic subjects. They, too, came to see peasants as children. But people who are owners of their destiny are not children, waiting for the party or the state to lead them by the hand.
This conception and practice has to be replaced with a horizontal relationship. Comarcas, like barrios and social, trade union and religious movements, need to build their own autonomy; it's indispensable for a revolution. Now more than ever, if people are to participate decisively in the class struggle, they need autonomy, the capacity to organize and exercise popular power around local development. The peasants' political hopes are plugged into the socioeconomic development of the comarcas. If divorced from that, political consciousness has its limits.
At the national level, there was a horizontal structure, best seen in the National Directorate itself. But from the top levels of party and government, it was all down. Middle-level cadres and the school that created them became a wall between the national leaders and the people. The concertation policy, for example, wasn't just a brainchild of the FSLN National Directorate implemented with the bourgeois opposition at a national level; it was the sum of the local actions of thousands of Sandinista cadres, who sometimes applied an excessively mechanical interpretation of the criteria.
The peasants rejected concertation; they had very little to gain, and a lot to lose. Just weeks before the elections, for example, one FSLN leader cancelled his meeting with the poor of the Christian Base Communities to meet with the religious hierarchy. Days before that, another went to Matagalpa and met with the coffee bourgeoisie and not with the poor peasants. The poor weren't invited to the fiesta where lands were returned and even some new lands given to the rich. All this was presented to the popular classes as a necessity; they were asked to close ranks around the FSLN's national project.
Peasants are not laboratory mice for testing an urban logic. Sandino succeeded in grouping together thousands of peasants because he started with their socioeconomic contradictions rather than just motivating them with anti-imperialist consciousness. Peasants have a productive logic, methods of political-military struggle and a conception of the world that we need to learn and get inside of to transform reality together with them. Sandino's “crazy little army” took the clandestine logic of “hit and run” tactics from the peasants' own history of struggle. Pedro Altamirano knew something about it, because the National Guard was always after him for selling homemade rum. And the Blandón family, as well as being enemies of the big cattle ranchers who constantly threatened them, grew and sold tobacco, which was also punishable by jail. Sandino's movement knew how to make use of their experiences of struggle. The city, too, has a productive, political and military logic of survival. Each world has to be respected and penetrated; the “lines” didn't take root because this key factor was forgotten. We can now see that there was no reason to try to determine the lives of thousands of peasants by imposing a line contrary to their own, even though the war and the economic aggression may have seemed to justify it.
In the countryside there are natural leaders who don't need to go through the party’s school for “political ideological” formation. They only need the space to play out their dreams, their economic strategy.
Language of the revolution; language of the poorIn the electoral campaign, one candidate dressed like a modem movie cowboy and the other in a white virginal gown and crutches. The results show that modernity didn't get as far as tradition. The FSLN’s modernization (technification) is no guarantee of continuing the revolution—although it might come in handy if all the FSLN wants to do is compete in elections like some Social Democrat or Social Christian party.
In these 10 years, even modernization was directed from above, rather than transforming human lives and responding to them. “Many Sandinista cadres learned how to make reports, but not how to discuss real problems right where they were happening.” Some reports, as well as a few analyses actually done in the comarcas by revolutionary scientists, did propose policies that contributed to the national level from the local one, but no one at the national level paid them any heed.
The only way to determine correct rural policies is to understand local reality and get to the heart of the problem with tact. To do that the Sandinista cadre first has to understand the contradictions, the power structure and organizational forms, the language and the productive logic that already exist in the comarcas. To skip this necessary step and just impose from outside violates what already exists in the comarcas, and will be rejected. The peasants know their own problems, limits and development potential. The land makes the technician, not the other way around.
All these years there was an emphasis on national consciousness, anti-imperialism, the war against the contras, Sandinismo, “patria libre o morir.” But sadly—or perhaps happily—the people first want to live. They want no war and no hunger, which are other forms of death. After that, yes, they want patria libre, the land of Sandino. Not the reverse. To understand that, you don't need an excessively rational mind.
For the poor who have been marginalized even by the FSLN, this “patria” idea doesn't strike much of a chord, it sounds like another party invention. The patria of the poor is different from the patria of the rich. For the poor, it doesn't go much beyond their own comarca, their own history, their own family table. The bourgeoisie is more interested in speaking abstractly, in using words devoid of content. In the name of the patria, of liberty, of God, they support imperialist aggression. That’s why, given the logic of the concertation the FSLN engaged in with the bourgeoisie, the poor felt the patria to be even further away. All these political-ideological themes have a different tradition in the peasant comarca than they do in the cities, very different from the simplistic vision of the petty bourgeoisie and “Sandinice” middle class. Fiestas and gifts don't solve problems; they hide them.
There's a lot of talk in party language about “orientación.” “There's no orientación yet,” one frequently hears a party cadre explain. What does it mean and who needs it? It’s another way of saying bajar líneas—in essence verticalism. Children need “orientation”; they're lost without parents to give them their bearings. Anyone in a dependent relation needs orientation. A farmhand can't make his own work plan, the farmer makes it and the farmhand applies it mechanically. Even the foreman waits for the farmer’s orientation. It’s a whole chain. Seen from the city, the comarca leaders are foremen who need urban cadres to give them their political bearing; the peasants in the comarca are the farmhands. In Wiwilí, even the mayor’s office depended on the FSLN political secretaries for the first five years of the revolution, carrying out their decisions with no objection. The party has been reduced to orientators and orientated.
In the farmer-foreman-farmhand relation, the farmhand works uncreatively. On a coffee plantation, for example, he does everything the same whether the coffee bushes are on flat ground or a hill, whether they're all the same variety or not. Some efficient farmers give the foreman more autonomy to supervise the work closely, but he usually uses it to control the farmhand more. In the FSLN, that relation is National Directorate-middle level cadres-people. It’s not a lot different than the traditional God-Catholic hierarchy-congregation relationship.
A peasant is a much more efficient producer than a big absentee landlord. The peasant applies technology creatively; being on the land, he knows the problem as a whole, can determine where it's heading, recognizes distinctions and decides what to do. If we admit that not knowing the zone makes us ignorant, what business do absentee cadres have determining the lines from someplace else?
Many, though certainly not all, of the technicians sent to the countryside only speak technical language; to them the peasant forms of cultivation and their productive logic seemed backward. So they brought in spray pumps and herbicides to clean out the grain crops; subsidies hid the economic disadvantages. Today those pumps are simple mementos of the past, useless trappings hanging from a barn post. The same thing happened when tractors were brought in to substitute the traditional oxen teams. With spare parts out of reach and diesel prices out of sight, what good is a tractor now? The peasantry’s own resources and techniques were victims of “modernization,” which ended up a failure. It's not that technology is negative in and of itself, but it absolutely is when it obscures the particularities of each zone. Why not accept that the peasant knows his zone better than a cadre who studied in the best universities? Why not accept that we alarmingly underestimate the peasants’ capacity?
And just as one has to know the particularities of the plants, the terrain and the climate to prune or apply fertilizers with a wise hand, the same is true for the peasants' political, military and spiritual reality. There's no point in the FSLN continuing its apparatus fever; rather it should insert itself into the peasant comarcas.
The God of the poor and other "Gods” Latin America as a whole is religious. Nicaragua is profoundly religious. And the comarcas around Masatepe and Wiwilí are religiously religious.
Religious activity intensified throughout the country starting in 1979. “They began to build churches all over the place.” More churches were built than schools and hospitals combined, more alienation than education and health.
The most active counterrevolution in the count was the Catholic hierarchy headed up by Cardinal Obando y Bravo. They demonized Sandinismo more than Somoza did when he called General Sandino a “bandit.” They delegitimized the revolution and legitimized the armed counterrevolution, supporting its financing with dollars approved by the US Congress. They preached reconciliation with the contras, but refused reconciliation with the Christian base communities. They railed about the “murder of the soul” and refused to intercede on behalf of those kidnapped—probably murdered—by the contras. Perestroika-proof, they spoke piously of democracy while constituting the maximum expression of anti-democracy in world history. Making use of the Pope and the Bible, they had no small effect on such a religious people, five centuries dependent on religion's dominion.
The poor of the countryside and the cities seek God, but the law of gravity established by the hierarchy prevents them from attaining Him. Their efforts are repelled by the structures, which provide no access to the faithful. Protestants, particularly the evangelical sects, offer a “direct route” to God, which in practice isn't the God of the Poor that the Bible speaks of, but simply God “in heaven.” “I have a place beyond the sun”—it's another form of repelling. And the thing is, God is in the poor, not the hierarchy, or the temples, or somewhere beyond the sun. “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes” (Luke, 10:21). These babes, the simple people, live in the comarcas and the barrios.
Nicaragua's Church of the Poor, too, emphasized the universal, the abstract, instead of looking at local reality, either in the comarcas or the urban barrios. It spoke of the poor, of justice, of imperialist aggression, but barely spoke of, much less engaged in, fights for water, health, education or economic development. Its theologians tended to live in the past, “reinterpreting the Bible.” They turned their backs on interpreting concrete reality, without recognizing that God is of the living, not of the dead. Jesus is still being crucified, and in the barrios and comarcas many bibles are still being written. With few exceptions, liberation theologians spent most of their time organizing congresses and signing pronouncements in favor of the poor, while the hierarchy isolated or swallowed up the base communities. It happened in Nicaragua just as it happened all over Latin America. It also happened with the more progressive Protestant movement, whose leadership was politicized by a universal and not local biblical language. Meanwhile, the charismatic movement grew throughout the country.
During the guerrilla period, the religious factor was fundamental in the comarcas of Masatepe for developing consciousness and the country’s liberation. In the struggle, a Delegate of the Word movement was born. But with the triumph, many of these delegates ceased that work and took up revolutionary leadership functions. Obando y Bravo and the hierarchy designed a religious structure that completely subsumed the original movement, replacing it with new delegates expressly obedient to Obando. And at the national level, under his baton, some progressive priests were relocated and various missionary priests and nuns were expelled, sanctioned or prohibited from coming.
The FSLN itself contributed to the hierarchy's strategy in the comarca by calling the peasants to meetings at the very hour of the Sunday Mass or other religious celebrations. It was a costly and unnecessary confrontation that slowly reduced the FSLN base. This ingenuous method of struggle against the power of domination underestimated religion based on the argument that the “opiate” wasn't real. It was real, all right. Other Sandinista cadres tried to erase not only the religion of dependency, but popular expressions of a more liberating faith as well.
There was even an effort to create another religion in the secular realm—the religion of the FSLN. It sought its legitimacy through the revolutionary martyrs, “the dead who never die.” Aren't we implicitly moving according to the past, creating a new dependency, losing our creative capacity to think in the present and the future? This doesn't mean we should deny our martyrs or forget our glorious past. But we can't create a cult of the dead and forget the living. We can't “bajar líneas” in the name of Carlos Fonseca and Sandino, whose dreams transcended the present to construct a new society. They showed us a road for the living, one that must be assimilated and creatively and pragmatically enriched by analyzing the present and conquering tie future. The martyrs will live through our transformation of reality. To continue seeking “understandings” with the bourgeoisie without democratically representing the poorer classes, to continue looking at reality through a national-universal prism, to persist in reading the present through slogans of the past, is to slowly kill our martyrs and heroes who gave their lives for the poor, the cause of Jesus, not the religious hierarchy or the bourgeoisie.
Jesus wasn't bourgeois and he didn’t “opt” for the poor; he was poor. He shared the news of liberation each place he went and shared his bread on the road with the poor, not with the dominant classes. His miracles of life responded to local realities: curing this or that sickness, discussing problems, fighting for the rights of the outcast, the lepers and the prostitutes. This he did among the people, in the midst of the contradictions with power. He didn't do it inside a temple, but in a temple without walls. He was crucified for fighting against the rich, against the hierarchy and the Roman empire, fighting for the liberation of the poor; and he was resurrected by the poor.
We have to recover this, to make the FSLN a local-national space in which there really is no contradiction between Christianity—the practice of Jesus—and revolution; in which the contradiction between the revolution of the poor and the discourse of the Church of the Poor or the verticality of the FSLN is corrected. The contradiction is between the revolution and the religion of Cardinal Obando.
The benefactor-dependent model (parent-child, farmer-farmhand, Obando-congregation, leader-follower, husband-wife) has to be eliminated, and the spaces of reality used to live the faith.
Wiwilí—Between war and uncertainty Wiwilí is the municipal capital of 84 comarcas that spread up into the mountains west of the Río Coco in Las Segovias. Located on the banks of that river, about 10 miles from the Honduran border, Wiwilí is an outpost of the old agricultural frontier, where Sandino and his men established themselves in 1933-34. The villages of Plan de Grama and El Carmen, each about 20 miles from Wiwilí, are comarca centers settled some 30 years ago; Plan de Grama, for example, is the administrative center for 10 comarcas. The rest of the peasant population lives dispersed in the isolated mountains or in resettlements created near Wiwilí during the war.
As a whole, over 53% of the municipality’s 8,346 voters cast their ballot for the FSLN and the remainder for UNO; not a single person voted for any of the eight other participating parties. The FSLN won all 15 villages and resettlements, including the town of Wiwilí itself, with an average 68% of the vote. But in the remote and sparsely populated mountainous comarcas, or in those nearer the populated areas with a preponderance of “rich” peasants who raise cattle or coffee, the FSLN only averaged 18%. The in-between comarcas were fairly evenly divided between the FSLN and UNO.
Concertation creates chaos The Sandinista government tried for years to win over those who sympathized or even collaborated with the “other people,” as rural folk all along the agricultural frontier refer to the contras. Although the policy bore some fruit, it was not a bounteous harvest. The government's mollycoddling of big cattle ranchers by giving them sizable tracts of land, for example, went unappreciated.
They despised the revolution from the very beginning. Matías, a long-time Sandinista, recalls that when the Sandinista Farm workers' Association (ATC) gave some lands to the poor in 1979, the big landowners protested. “They’re giving the Indians a shitload of money! Now who's going to cut weeds, fix fences and tend the coffee?” And they never changed; they benefited from the revolution, collaborated with the “other people” all those years and then voted for UNO. As Mercedes, a peasant woman from Plan de Grama put it, “They milked the cow, drank the milk and now dance at its slaughter."
Some Sandinista militants, too, resented the state's paternalistic attitude toward these contra sympathizers. “Why kid ourselves?” complained Matías. “Those suckers wouldn't become Sandinista if you showered them in gold! They get trucks and what do we get? Nothing. Meanwhile, our people are up in the mountains getting themselves killed. What’s that about? ‘Stick it out,’ they keep telling us. ‘We're going to win.’”
The FSLN’s insistence on pampering the wealthy from the zone while marginalizing the grassroots sectors had a major impact on the poor peasants and the small dairy farmers and coffee growers. Quite simply, they didn't feel represented by the FSLN. “We've worked so hard for nothing. I don’t even have a house; I live with my father. But the others, those from UNO, they’ve been given land even when they don’t need it.”
Through the Ministry of Domestic Commerce (MICOIN), the state tried to control all the peasants’ production in the first years. And to benefit the merchants, not the people. Merchants in the zone have a history; some are known as “good people” and others as “bad,” but that the state would try to benefit any of them against the interests of the peasantry was intolerable. “One day MICOIN came by and said I had to sell my potatoes to two merchants, that I couldn't sell direct to the people,” recounted one peasant. “Man, That’s barbarous! I bought the seed, I worked it and sweated over it; nobody gave me anything. So? I have the right to sell to anyone I want to; I can throw it all in the river if I want. I’ve seen these merchants earn more in five minutes than a poor peasant does in months of work. Now MICOIN comes along and tells me to give it all to these two jokers.”
Siding with the merchants against the producers is an old story in Wiwilí, one that goes back well before the revolution, and the peasants are fed up with it. They also complain about the credits given out in the zone, how they were all eaten up by inflation, how they were directed mainly to the cattle ranchers and not the small basic grains farmers. The bottom line of the concertation policy, at that time referred to as “national unity,” is that it didn’t change the minds of the wealthy minority that opposed the revolution but did change some minds among those with fewer economic resources. Concertation created chaos among the poor.
Rich peasants and poor: A ticklish relation These economic policy errors toward the peasantry become clear when we look at the rural structure and social order, when we understand the peasants' reality and dreams—something the policy designers didn't know about, or want to know about. The peasants understand their reality clearly, even if it is an alienating one.
A majority of the comarcas, especially those of central Wiwilí, which have been cleared of trees to make way for cattle and coffee, have several strata of agricultural producers. The poorest peasants, including day laborers and seasonal pickers, look at the “rich” peasants—their bosses—as their economic model. The rich peasant is distinguished from his poorer neighbors by having accumulated enough to be able to hire a few workers when necessary to pick his coffee bushes or make cheese from the milk of his dozen or so cows, but he's not so rich that he doesn’t rely mainly on his own family’s labor. Because his status seems attainable, unlike that of the few really big ranchers and farmers, he's the mirror of time in which poor peasants see their future image reflected. They usually follow the same road he did to be someday like him—a “big” cattleman or coffee grower, a “hard worker.” He’s their sponsor, source of work, godfather and proxy to the state, even though he also may be exploitative and abusive. The poor have nothing to gain by rebelling against him, and a lot to lose—work and life itself. Why gamble on a revolution whose cadres “cozy up” to him and not to them?
People always have models to emulate for their own economic development. In the comarcas, the rich peasants are the model, both for what they produce and who they are. “Olivas, a guy from La Ceiba who doesn't even know how to read, used to produce 500 piglets a year,” recounted Felix, a peasant with a small cattle herd. “And the state cut his land back. They reduced those who produced and gave their land to people who didn't produce anything. Now not a chicken, not even a banana comes out of there. I thought the revolution was to get the poor onto better lands, not to get better-off people into a worse mess.”
Even in a zone with a short labor supply, the rich man has all the help he wants. “That old guy with the money is a terror with his workers, a real fiend, but they keep on going back to him. He never wants for hands.” This is dependency, and its flip side is domination. In this light, both the confiscation and concertation policies were erroneous, as poor peasants felt right off. They felt personally threatened when the boss had any land confiscated, and at the same time felt personally cheated when the revolution played favorites with him. The political-military logic of winning over enemies at the cost of the poor undermined the revolution; thinking to theoretically benefit the poor, the policies impoverished them even more.
Decisions from above And where was it decided who would be confiscated? “Above.” That’s part of why the poor peasants felt affected; they weren't the ones who resolved anything. Most confiscations weren't the product of land takeovers, of a movement of peasants conscious that they had to produce and demonstrate that they were more efficient than the bourgeoisie. The state did the confiscating and that was the end of it. Many peasants wanted individual plots and didn't join the cooperatives; others who did join soon left. Still others got used to the subsidies from “papa state” and fought with the rest of the comarca.
There were also problems with those in the settlements of displaced peasants, a product of the war. They didn’t produce on the settlement land like they had before; many just cut down the forest and sold the wood. “There's land up in the mountains. If this war would end, we could go there. Here we wander around like pigs in a sty. We can't do anything; there aren’t even slopes to plant beans on.” They felt their situation imposed from outside, temporary. “Now you don't see any of those fruit trees or even steam from hot coffee”—the one a symbol of stability, the other of well-being.
The pardoning of peasant debts, too, was decided upstairs. “I took documents to the peasants, and they got all excited. Some took out an even larger credit, but they didn’t plant because they knew it would happen again. Others took out a larger one and skipped off to Honduras. If the state gives them things, its bad; if it doesn't, it’s still bad.” The pardons didn't stimulate production; they just accentuated dependency.
“Before the revolution the peasants used to live without sugar,” reminisced Matías. “We won and gave them sugar. Then the war came and sugar got scarce, so they began to get angry with the revolution.” The problem isn't the scarcity of sugar; it’s the relationship between the people and leaders who “give” it to them. “Things that don't cost anything aren't valued.” It’s not about substituting one boss with another, but changing the dependency relationship. The conclusion is always the same: “lines” don't work; you have to start from the reality in each zone. You don't learn that in a classroom in Moscow or Havana, but from the peasants themselves. The land makes the technician, not the technician the land.
Peasants aren’t closed to the world as the political cadres think. They want to talk and think out loud about production, about their problems. It's the cadres who are closed to the peasant world. They can’t just wait for “orientations” from the city; they have to get into the peasants' boots and help develop the comarca, even when their participation contradicts the orientations. Revolution is fundamentally economic development, improvement of living standards, happiness and well-being—and the power of people working together, making decisions about their own destiny. Revolution isn’t made at a desk; it's made in every square inch of the territory.
...Dreams from below Apart from the real social order in the countryside, there are also the dreams of the poor peasants, of the day laborers. Dreams of economic development, genuine peasant strategies, bogged down by parties and institutions, including the religious one. Who else knows the limits and potentials of a zone? Who can resolve its problems better than the people who live in it? That is, they can just resolve the local-national dialectic, which doesn't mean being left alone to their impoverished fate. In the deep recesses of their consciousness, peasants have development alternatives:
“We don’t have much land here but we could overcome that with a project. Look at those fences over there, that’s where the Río Coco and the Wiwilí Creek pass; they form a Y, with the Cruz Laguna district in the middle. The river comes from above, so with the force of the water itself we could crease an irrigation system to produce not only grains but vegetables too—onions, tomatoes, potatoes… We could organize. Wiwilí would benefit and so would we. We have a pasture problem in the summer here; the cows produce less milk because they’re weaker. But we could make concentrates for them right here. Look, we have corncobs. We could plant an acre of cane; 15-20 peasants could get together and buy a metal press, or at least a wood one, and make molasses. That, together with the corncobs and a bit of wheat in a five-story box about two feet square and we’d have the concentrate. Then we’d have more milk.
The peasants keep on dreaming. Make cheese, recover the abandoned coffee, plant more beans, get more land. And if these modest dreams were to come true, they could increase and vary their diet. With those dreams would also come organization, consciousness of struggle, appropriation of their own history.
But they can't come true with cadres like some of the political secretaries in the area: “The political secretary isn’t the least bit concerned about the mass organizations; he only demands work. No wonder he's not concerned; he's always off with different women. Most likely he's making enemies with the girls’ families. He never worried about the historic collaborators either; and now they’re either with the contras, killed by them or home resentful.”
Or like some zone leaders, who demand sainthood while reserving the right to be the most corrupt: 'The corruption screwed us all—the zone leaders shacking up everywhere. How could we be an example that way? And worse yet, they asked the militants to be virtual saints. Can you believe it? With what authority?”
The messages of religion Protestantism is a very strong force in Wiwilí. In the Plan de Grama zone, 70% of the population is Protestant, more than almost anywhere else in the Pacific side of the country. Most of its growth has been since the revolutionary triumph. Between 1979 and 1981, it appeared as a reaction to Sandinismo, which was painted as the germ of atheist communism, prelude to the “final days.” But its boom years were between 1982 and 1985, when its pastors preached political neutrality and led people to feel that the only gates leading out of their tragic reality were “Pearly.” It has continued its growth curve since then, but leas steeply.
Three factors influenced this growth: 1) the war, 2) the economic crisis (seen as a product of state control over the comarca, over prices, etc.) and 3) the particular lens through which the Protestants read the Bible. “In the midst of their affliction and crisis, people sought God as their only salvation,” explained a pastor from Plan de Grama. “Furthermore, reading the Bible, or listening to it being read, people realized that the current signs were already written there and are being fulfilled.” The pastors interpreted the war and economic crisis as the “letter by letter” fulfillment of what the Bible says: “Brother against brother, son against father. This is happening; soon the world will end and Jesus will come.” For the peasants, pursued daily by death, this message had some logic. The charismatic Catholic Church also grew thanks to the same message.
The Protestants were both more “celestial” than the Catholic Church and more “neutral,” in that they didn't politicize their services. Even though they follow the same alienating patterns as any religion that offers refuge from crisis and anxiety, often with “electronic” messages and prayers, they didn't enter into direct confrontation with the revolution. The Protestant God doesn't appear to side with any of the contenders. This style contrasts with the religious manipulation of the Catholic priests and their charismatic Delegates of the Word, who go after the revolution head on, delegitimizing it with falsehoods and satanizing it as the enemy of God.
Unlike the Catholics, Protestants generally preach “respect for civil authorities,” although they don't go overboard with the message. They have few practical contradictions with the government. Their members are in the settlements, in the cooperatives, some are even militants in the FSLN. While a few sects, for example the Pentecostals in central Wiwilí, do preach against the revolution, apoliticalness predominates. “We acknowledge President Ortega's government for allowing the religious freedom that exists in this country,” says a local Protestant pastor.
During the electoral campaign, UNO had virtually no presence in Wiwilí; it didn't even assign delegates to the comarcas for voter registration. But “the other people” and the Catholic Church indirectly and amply represented it. The only two occasions that brought multitudes out were the visit there of FSLN vice presidential candidate Sergio Ramirez on January 25, and the dedication a few days later of the new Catholic church in Wiwilí-Jinoteguita. The priest openly opposed his faithful going to Ramírez’s demonstration, pressuring one woman by saying, “You have to decide—God or the state.” During the church dedication, the congregation compared the two events as if both were political. “We won; we got more people than on January 25,” they congratulated themselves. This suggests that the charismatic Catholic Church and its ideology is the real counterrevolution, not the people victimized by its manipulations.
UNO is a “bag with no bones,” as one peasant put it, but in the rural areas the Catholic Church is where its bones are. In the comarca called El Triunfo, near Plan de Grama, a new church was built in 1989. That makes three. In the priest’s absence, the religious person in charge is Tranquilino Gutiérrez, nephew of Ramón Gutiérrez, who converted and is now an evangelical leader. Both are also declared anti-Sandinistas. Two of Ramón's brothers assist Tranquilino. The Gutiérrez family is a real religious power in the comarca. They officiate at the services every Sunday, and they increased the number of vigils starting in January. Now they’re held on Friday too, because “God has won.”
Religion, whether Protestant or Catholic, whether expressly political or “neutral,” constantly bombards the peasants ideologically. It can safely be said that Christianity in our country does not respect the people’s religion or accompany them in their hopes; rather it’s used as an instrument to subjugate the poorest and sell them death gift-wrapped in a false paradise.
War and peasant neutrality—Lessons of the first years The counterrevolution is frequently spoken of as a “mercenary” force, but many peasants got involved voluntarily—or at least not for money. Why? Sketching in some answers could contribute to understanding why they also voted against the FSLN.
It has to do with peasant “neutrality.” During the war, the peasants were like “deer between two tigers.” The army was on one side and the contras on the other. Both penalized the peasants who, to preserve their lives, extended their hand to one and then the other. Many peasants were either kidnapped by the contras or thrown in jail by the army. Both damaged their properties and crops. All this happened in 1980-83. The war constituted an absolute rape of the local power structure by a power outside the comarcas.
The very expressions “these people” and the “other people” is formal evidence of peasant neutrality. They’re neutral toward an outside force like war, but not toward the comarca. That’s their bottom-line policy. The army’s “urban” attitude—which comprehended little of the peasants’ lives, their property, their economy—translated often into repression and bullying. The peasants' way of life was disrespected and their historic neutrality violated. It must be recalled that the peasants in this zone didn't have a role in the 1979 insurrection, and, save some places like Kilambé, they didn't experience the National Guard's constant and direct abuse. The revolutionary triumph meant militarizing civil society, which had a strong impact in comarcas like these. With the beginning of the “big war,” the peasants were affected as much by the army as by the contras.
There was, for example, the head of State Security in Plan de Grama in 1980-81—the terror of the peasants. They even feared going down into the village to make purchases because he immediately interrogated them. He also went to their houses, abusively seeking details about some unconfirmed report or accusing them of having given food to the contras. All peasants remember him with bitterness, as they do the head of the army battalion in the zone. The latter would go through a community demanding information about the contras, and, taking the peasants' fear of him as a sign of guilt, he'd punish them with a knife or hit them with his rifle butt; he even killed a few. “Since they saw us in rags, unable to speak, they wanted to wipe their asses with us,” said a peasant from Plan de Grama.
The security chief as well as some other military leaders confiscated the good cow, a mule of anyone they sent to jail on suspicion of collaborating; it was military policy in those years. “I knew one guy who went off with the contras, then later four sons followed him; only his woman and younger kids stayed behind,” recounted one peasant. “They took his cows and mules away, leaving the woman with nothing to take care of the rest of her children. Those kids are now UNO's strongest supporters.” All was done according to the logic of military confrontation, without taking the peasants' world and their economic production into account.
When the contras came to the comarcas, they acted exactly the same. At the beginning, when the contras were mainly former National Guardsmen, they had a great time repressing people. With no evidence at all, they'd accuse peasants of being Sandinista, of being State Security, of having given food to the “piris” [short for piricuaco, a derogatory name used by the contras to refer to the army].
They kidnapped, tortured and committed other atrocious crimes against the peasants. One displaced peasant from the resettlement in Plan de Grama described it: “Seeing that someone didn't sympathize with them, they tortured the person, humiliated him. They raped our children, our women. They took our cows. And when they’d passed, they left behind the ‘link’ they'd made. So if they ate your cow, you couldn't tell anyone because the 'link' would hear about it, and, the next time the other people came through, you could get killed.” “Links” were peasants who informed on the army’s movements and on neighbors who lent their support to the Sandinistas.
The contras also carried out political-ideological work based on rumors and lies, taking advantage of the peasants' limited, often nonexistent, education. “The other people say they’re taking the youth off so communism won’t get them,” said the same peasant who had criticized the army for leaving the abandoned woman with nothing for her children. “They say, 'The piris are going to take your belongings; the piris eat little children; the piris make soap out of the old people; they’re going to take your women.’ They said all that to make us afraid of these people.”
All they had to do was ask Tools and crops are as fundamental to peasants as an air conditioner or computer are to an intellectual. Property and the crops on it, fruit of the peasants' work, are the guarantee of survival. To affect this is to put their very lives at risk. The army troops would grab all the oranges or tangerines any time they passed through a field with citrus trees, leaving the trees ruined. And it wasn't only fruit. The battalions made up of people from the city also snatched radios or kitchenware, arguing that “you have to harass them because from here they'll go off to the contras.” The fences were destroyed either by combats or by the passage of troops. “They pulled out the wire with the bayonet of their AK,” said one resentful peasant. “And you know how expensive a role of barbed wire is now, not even counting transport and installation. One day they ripped out a post, and when I complained, they pointed their AK at me. If you get angry you can end up with them throwing lead at you.”
This behavior reveals an ignorance of peasant psychology, because, as one peasant describes it, “We’re capable of freely giving away two or three whole trees full of oranges; all you have to do is ask.” This gift, in their view, guarantees that their trees, and, therefore, the continuation of their production, won't be destroyed. Some battalions, it’s true, showed greater understanding. “They asked me to give them a piece of my land for a military base. I left some milk cows there so they could have milk if they’d care for my calves. And they did; they took good care of them for me. They even injected them with vitamins. When I got them back they were all fattened up.” This same producer remembers Sandino's troops, how they never damaged the fences or demanded milk by force. “I was a kid then; we lived in Estelí and my dad had a lot of cattle. Sandino arrived with his people and they never ate any of our cows. They asked us for milk, hens, boots and we gave them to them. I milked 40 cows, and sometimes they drank all of it. But we never got upset because they always asked. My dad used to say to me, ‘If these people go through, don't ever deny them anything.’ That’s how it was.”
The issue of property and crops got even more complicated when the contras began to plant mines under the fruit trees, which the army immediately copied. But as one contra said, “We carried everything in our pack—our bed, our food, our family, our farm, everything.” To which a peasant responded, “That's why we were the ones who suffered. We have our family and farm here, we don't go hither and yon like you.” The contras had nothing to lose and the peasants had nothing to gain.
Another expression of peasant neutrality is their “conversion” to the gospel—to Protestantism—seeking armor to shield them from the war, an anchor to a superior being to give them internal peace. What’s the lesson of this? It’s that whoever wins over the peasants' view on neutrality wins their support.
The FSLN, through its political, military and economic organizations, violated peasant neutrality even more than the contras; the elections confirmed this. Peasants may be neutral but they’re not tolerant.
A preferential option for the "other people" Their neutrality shattered, the peasants had only two options: await their fate on the farm or collaborate with one side or the other. Many factors weighed in their deliberation.
In war zones like Wiwilí, self-defense systems were formed in the comarcas. The peasants participated because it allowed them to carry a rifle, defend their turf and continue producing. But afterward, the army “line” was to send members of the self-defense militias to other combat zones. To their surprise, he peasants resisted. “Leave my corn patch and my family to go somewhere else? You’ve got to be kidding!” The “line” had serious consequences: many peasants opted to go with the contras just because they could be closer to their families.
“It’s now almost a legacy that peasants are illiterate, oppressed, isolated,” explained a military officer who had come to understand peasant thinking. “Thus the majority are followers, and they’re attracted by what they can see. If they see you in a good uniform, good rifle, well equipped, they’re impressed. If, on the other hand, they see you going around in cruddy boots, half out of uniform, they're not going to put their life's savings in your bank. The contras come and tell them, ‘Look, we're a powerful force, we even have help from the United States. Nobody can destroy us, we're going to win this year. We're fighting to change this, so you can have such-and-such a thing.’ All this made the peasants join them. The peasants were motivated and tricked by a series of promises, and decided to go with them.”
It seems infantile, but it's nothing more than the war of images applied at a local level. The contras didn't dress well and carry sophisticated weaponry for nothing. Peasants are “followers” in the context of family, religious and employer dependency, which is the social fabric of the countryside. In addition to images of power, peasants evaluated how many deaths each side suffered. And in the years 1981-83, it looked as though the army had more casualties than the contras. They also observed each side's military tactics. The peasants' style is “hit and run,” hide in the mountains then attack—a sort of guerrilla war. From their angle, the army seemed to be walking right into contra ambushes, all the more if the battalions were made up completely of urban soldiers, who at that time were untrained volunteers on three-month stints. The peasants decided based on all these elements. Generally speaking, they went with the counterrevolution.
The opinion of important men, men with clout, is worth a lot to peasants. If they agreed to join or collaborate with the contras, that opened the door for many peasants. Israel (“Franklin”) Galeano, who later became the top contra leader, was from the Wiwilí comarca of El Faro, where he had nearly 3,500 acres together with his brother Marcelino, making them one of the largest producers in the area. “Franklin” was convinced by the contra chief “Tigrillo” to join the contras in 1982.
The same when a relative was already in the counterrevolution. He’d often end up convincing others. Or the reverse: many went to protect other family members who stayed behind. The contras' style of “persuasion,” in the final analysis, didn't leave too many options. 'The contras arrived and said, “Okay, let’s go!” “No, look, I’m going to stay and work.” “The hell with that! You're going or were taking you by force.” And they started kidnapping people. Given this, many opted to say, “Okay, I’ll go with you, but don't take my family.” Out in those isolated mountains, peasant neutrality means that they don't measure the moral merits of the FSLN forces versus the counterrevolution, just the relative strength of each.
In those years, both tigers were ferocious. Neither side offered the peasants many alternatives. So it’s an oversimplification to say that the low-intensity war wore the country down, although in general terms that’s true. On the ground, the facts were much more complex; there was erosion of all kinds.
One more illustrative example of the complexity: From the national point of view, the counterrevolution appears as the main saboteur of the economy and the “brigadistas” who harvested the coffee as the” examples to follow.” But this isn’t necessarily the peasant view. In the first years of the war, the contras declared themselves the enemy of coffee. They threatened “to hang the coffee pickers from the trees,” recalls don Francisco, a peasant from outside of Plan de Grama. In addition, the brigadistas created an urban-rural contradiction, because they came from the city and damaged the plants more than they picked coffee. “I lost my coffee because they came. Look, they destroyed everything.” In the 1982-83 harvesting cycle, the army also helped pick the “little red beans.” Poor peasants saw both the brigadistas and soldiers as coming to “steal the bread,” since the coffee harvest is the best time to pick up a bit of money. The peasants also saw them as bringing trouble with the “other people.” In their eyes, the contras, by sabotaging the coffee harvest, defended their economy more than the brigadistas. This logic was bolstered by contra propaganda about the destiny of the coffee: “They’re harvesting it for the Cuban communists, not for the people.”
All this led to the abandonment of more than half the lands under coffee cultivation in the municipality, more than 6,000 acres, according to estimates by the Union of Farmers and Cattle Ranchero (UNAG) in Wiwilí. Nobody wanted to pick coffee. For similar reasons large quantities of citrus fruit, plantains and sugar cane were lost.
Lessons applied with mixed results In the 1983-86 period, there was a major shift in the military’s political line toward the peasantry. The Ministry of the Interior began this process by substituting the hated chief of security in Plan de Grama for another lieutenant. There were also changes in the army. With this change of officers, a slow process began that eventually broadened and consolidated a small peasant base.
In military affairs, the change was palpable: for example, no more cattle or lands were confiscated from those who took up arms. The military also began to respect the peasants’ property and crops, and when they damaged them, they paid an acceptable sum. Abuse and maltreatment was curtailed in favor of methods aimed at convincing rather than coercing the peasants. In general, all this increased confidence between the political-military authorities and the population. But it didn’t stop the peasants from taking up arms, because the contras didn't change their policy. They still gave the peasants an offer they could hardly refuse: join us now or resign yourself to kidnapping—or, worse yet, death.
Not everybody saw the shift as much of a solution in and of itself. “If a house had six males, one or two would go and four would stay with the family. Or if the whole family went, no one would touch their property. The FSLN would come and see to it that the property remained with a family member. So, what happened? They'd say, ‘I’ll go fight and it’ll be okay; all this will stay with my relatives. I’ll still have it.’ No measures were taken. But if they’d sent the army in and taken the cattle off and confiscated the house of those who went off, people would have thought twice before going. The same if a relative went off; if they knew you were going to come and tell the others that they can't live there any more, many peasants wouldn’t have gone. They’d have said, ‘I have to see to my family.’ Of course, they’d have been a social base for the others in any case, they’d have gone on working with them, but at least they wouldn't have gone. But we didn’t point that out to them, and they didn't think about it themselves, so they went. What did the FSLN do then? It gave their women loans. That’s why people took up arms massively.” The situation was obviously complicated.
All things considered, the change of personnel and attitude benefited El Triunfo. For many years, despite the difficulties, that comarca was among the highest producers of coffee, cattle and basic grains—the number one coffee producer in the whole municipality. Recognizing that, the authorities in Plan de Grama decided in 1983 to reward El Triunfo by not drafting anyone, even for the reserves. “It’s an incentive for you to keep on producing.” And they did, even though the bulk of them also collaborated with the counterrevolution. That, too, has its explanation.
The contras had also perceived that El Triunfo was productive and began to maintain permanent troops there. The comarca’s founder, an economically powerful farmer, collaborated directly with them. Typically, this hacienda owner had an extensive family network, a lot of religious clout and was a source of employment. He had once been jailed by the military, but even though there'd been good reason to apply the law, people saw him as victimized by the FSLN, castigated for his economic success. Once again the internal comarca structure had been violated.
The peasants were totally contra in three of the six valleys that make up El Triunfo. From those valleys alone, the contras were able to put together a whole regional command of 300 men. What’s more, they operated out of the same area, a sterling example of fish swimming in their own sea. The army could pass through, but couldn’t stop.
The peasants finally persuaded the contras to change their “orientation” to attack the coffee harvest by convincing them that they were jeopardizing their own social base: “What kind of shit is this?” they told the contra leaders. “How’re we going to give you food if you don't want to let us pick our coffee?” So the contras changed tactics; instead of attacking peasants picking the coffee, they commenced attacking the state coffee installations, after the beans had been turned over. That way they affected the state and not the peasants.
Armed electoral propaganda contra-style There's no doubt but that the military presence on both sides weighed heavily in the elections; it's a powerful language. But during the campaign there was another change in the contras' methods. They formed groups of up to 15 armed men to go visit the peasants. It was a way of saying that they were there, an expression both of power and of the possibility that the war would continue if the Sandinistas won.
In comarcas like El Triunfo and a few others where they had a permanent presence, the contras subdivided the zone for the purpose of their house visits—not geographically, but politically. They went to the houses of relatives and/or collaborators to indicate how they should vote; to those where there was less sympathy they went to clearly warn them that voting for the FSLN was to “sign their death warrant.”
And how, if the vote was secret, did the contras convince people that they would know? They told the peasants that they’d have a little radio in the voting booths that could tell who voted for the FSLN.
The house visits were accompanied by the distribution of flyers. Some were titled, “El 'No Hay' de la Revolución” (The 'There Isn't Any' of the Revolution): “There aren't any beans, there isn't any oil, there isn't...” Most of the peasants don’t know how to read or simply aren’t accustomed since there's little to read. Depending on who brings the flyer, it’s sufficient to imagine its content. The “other people” didn't distribute them so much to he read as to give an almost mysterious “proof of power,” knowing the impact of the written word—even if unintelligible—on illiterate peasants.
Other armed contra groups worked the “no man’s land” comarcas, ones in which both they and the army could pass through, but neither were welcome. In those comarcas the contras mixed political-electoral messages with an UNO government—“things won't be so expensive”—with direct military threats. On election day itself, when the peasants went down from the mountain to vote, these armed groups also threatened them with death if they didn't vote for UNO. “Armed people command unarmed people,” said one peasant philosophically.
The contras had a lot of success with this “armed campaign.” After so many years of war, the peasants didn't shrug off the presentation of their vote as a “life or death” issue. This, quite evidently, means that not all votes against the FSLN were decided years earlier; some were decided that very day.
In the comarcas and villages closer to Wiwilí, on the other hand, where the FSLN had been able to carry out more ongoing political-military work, the contras didn’t have much freedom of movement. And they failed to drum up much support in their sporadic visits.
FSLN electoral campaign: Actions speak louder The FSLN’s own electoral work didn’t have much impact in “no man’s land.” Unfamiliar with election campaigning, the mountain people saw the presence of the activists simply as a “Sandinista threat.” The army’s few continuing military operations were interpreted as a sign that the war would continue if the FSLN won. In other comarcas the Sandinistas couldn’t even enter.
The war’s psychosocial impact among the peasants is not yet definable. Bombs, mortars and combats, to say nothing of deaths with a name and a face, have left their mark on the population. On pregnant women—“Ayyy, how the baby kicked during the bombing”—and on children, both those orphaned and those kidnapped, or enticed, by the contras. Inducted at 12-14 years of age, barely able to shoulder their rifle, they have little experience working the land, and no idea where their parents live now. With three or four years of participating in the war, what’s their image of the world? Born to make war; that’s what they think. The war’s multiple impact on them will only be revealed with time.
What’s already clear, though, is that the adult peasants haven’t gotten used to war; they’re sick of it and they voted against it. Thus, the Christmas toys that the FSLN handed out in the villages during the campaign may have cost a vote or two. The toy rifles were seen as a sign of a “warlike soul,” enemy of God and of the peasants who suffered from the war. The more neutral rag dolls and little clay doll houses parents made were profaned by the urban toys.
In Wiwilí itself, however, as in Plan de Grama, El Carmen and the dozen or so other nearby villages or resettlements, the revolution’s impact has been more positive. In addition to the not-insignificant fact that the contra threat was less, this impact was mainly due to the health services that, despite scarce resources, were organized to treat the accessible population. The potable water service installed in Wiwilí was also important. Each day that the peasants drank good water and resolved their health problems, the Sandinistas secured more votes than they did with any political speech.
Leader-people dialectic and natural leadersAll this said, how does one explain the Sandinistas’ electoral victory in Wiwilí, the only municipalitiy on the agricultural frontier that they won? Why that victory in a war zone? It is just because of drinking water and a doctor? Was it also because of Sandino’s living memory there?
Wiwilí has seen more battles in this century than practically anyplace else in Nicaragua: Sandino (1927-34), the liberation was against Somoza and the war against the contras. The town has thus been gestating an historic consciousness of anti-imperialist struggle. Sandino’s image is alive in the memory of many townsfolk, who knew his soldiers or have heard them spoken about. Family networks of the Blandóns, the Altamiranos and others are spread throughout the municipality. Not so in the rest of the country; if Sandino’s name ever slipped through the fine sieve of Somoza’s censorship it was disguised among other tall tales told children by grandpas.
So it was both those things, in part, but the shift in the FSLN’s political-military work starting in 1983 was the key factor. It may not have prevented peasants in the isolated comarcas from going off with the contras, but it offered nearby villagers more participation in decision making and the peasants more respect for their local power structures. It’s not fully developed even yet; it’s reach is still quite limited in the comarcas where the vote for the FSLN was also very limited.
Leadership in the comarcas is fundamental for a revolutionary process, and “natural” local leaders carry more weight with the peasants than any political cadres sent from outside, no matter how good. As we mentioned, there was one in El Triunfo—founder of the comarca, source of work, raiser of cattle and mules, coffee grower, supporter of the counterrevolution. When he got out of jail he stayed in the comarca, reestablishing his farm, after which the comarca is named. Until recently, there was another one with a lot of pull too. He looked after everybody's problems in the whole zone of Plan de Grama—credits, relations with authorities, production, family issues. But he was threatened with death by the contras one too many times, so in 1988 he pulled up stakes and went to Siuna.
Without exhausting the subject, we can characterize such natural leaders as people concerned not just with their own farm but with the comarca and its economic development, because they see it as one whole family. They deal with political problems, face up to authorities—very different than most FSLN cadres in this respect—to get the peasants’ problems resolved. They offer advice on family problems, from quarrels to ailments. They're the ones who tell the best stories, jokes, histories, personal experiences and success stories, so they’re almost always surrounded by a lot of people. They know the comarca’s history and are keepers of its keys. They also know its people, each one of them. They're usually honest, hardworking and gutsy. These natural leaders are the ones the peasants follow, and, in their dreams, model themselves after. When they go to such a leader with some problem, their dream is reinforced because, independent of the answer itself, the leader has responded to them concretely and convincingly, not with a lot of blah-blah.
Such a leader is seldom an isolated individual, but usually a couple. If one spouse deals with economic or political aspects, the other looks after issues of health, family problems and the like. They are mutually complementary, and it's not necessarily gender specific. In El Arenal, as we will see, the leadership is mainly women and in Wiwilí men, although in neither place is it exclusively so.
There are also provisional leaders—presidents of cooperatives, leaders nominated by the peasants for a specific job. Nominated locally, they're part of the local structure. Both natural and provisional leaders are such because they represent their comarca’s interests, not outside ones.
How do you recognize a leader? There are no recipes. If your goal is electoral, you can get all twisted up. If it's to get inside peasant reality, or promote the development of the comarca, leaders will come to you, you don't need to go looking for them. But don't try to use them or send them out of the comarca for political training in a cadre school. Because the comarcas are universities without walls, a geographic space where one can learn almost everything there is to know about class struggle, truncated dreams and rivers of popular hope. That’s something that the political secretaries, zone chiefs and cadres in general sometimes forget.
In the Plan de Grama comarcas, the natural leaders weren't affected by the revolution, except in the 1979-82 period, which indeed caused serious problems. Nor were they substituted by the military authorities, who respected them as leaders. The two even worked together on some commissions.
Prelude to a dialectic relation A fundamental aspect of the FSLN’s electoral win in Wiwilí, then, was the dialectic relationship that was slowly developing between some representatives from outside and the Wiwilí population. This dialectic allowed the people to feel the beginnings of what it means to be a historic subject, to “be taken into account.” There were five factors in this process.
1. The creation of commissions. Set up by comarca and zone, these commissions were charged with discussing and resolving the peasants' military, economic and political problems. They were made up of the president of each cooperative (natural and provisional leaders), the municipal FSLN leader and the heads of State Security and the army battalion. Over the years they created an atmosphere of sufficient trust and friendship to allow them to hammer out less harsh policies for the peasantry. One such policy was the draft. While it was eventually applied with more flexibility, the debate always persisted given that, although agricultural production has certain rhythms, the war doesn't.
Major solutions came out of the work of the commissions—the road they repaved in 1983; the ENCAFE warehouse they put in Plan de Grama, which pulled the rug out from under private buyers; the bank credits; the peasant store; the four-mile channel for a pipe under the Río Coco and the tanked water in Wiwilí itself, work that all the neighborhoods, state institutions and social sectors did together with a German technician, symbol of international solidarity. These achievements and the new relations that made them possible endure beyond the political-ideological barriers and the economic crisis. Also beyond the electoral reverse.
2. Attention to the settlements of war displaced. There are several in the zone, each with a board directed by a provisional leader. The people in the settlements work the land individually and collectively, and jointly resolve problems such as housing. These people were the most affected by military mobilization, but also the most politically conscious. In a certain sense, the settlements are politically self-sufficient, but the same cannot be said economically. They are dependent regarding work plans and the assignment of specific crops.
3. The conception of State Security work in the comarcas. The lieutenant assigned to the Plan de Grama zone in 1983 stated then that “collaboration with the counterrevolution does not constitute a crime if one is a family member of someone who has taken up arms, because you can't prevent a person from helping a brother or an uncle.” He respected family networks, so important in the countryside, even when this favored the counterrevolution. “My work,” he said, “is to convince. I'll go where they are and talk to them so they don't keep making this mistake, tell them I know what they're doing, that they should think of their children and their work.” Between 1983 and 1989, only two peasants were jailed, a sign of how positive the work was.
“When I came, I asked for six months before starting to work,” he says, “just to get to know the peasants. And they gave it to me. After the six months I began to work, with confidence and friendships.” The security chief now knows the zone, and everybody trusts him. He's helped a lot by his knowledge as a skilled agronomist, but even more by his ability to listen and respond. “Coming here, the first thing you have to do is make contact with the people, make relations, clear up the problems,” he counsels. “You also have to recognize that it's not the same to go convince someone who's gone through sixth grade as it is a person who doesn't know how to read. So the relationship with people from the towns is different than with those from the rural areas. I now know how to treat the peasants. I have to talk with them in their own terms, not use difficult words. And with the people in the villages and towns I don't use the words I use with the peasants, but those in line with their own education.” As a representative of the outside world, he has won over the peasantry.
4. The role of the mayor’s office. Generally speaking, it has been important in Wiwilí in solving different problems, among the most important of which was the implementation of a plan to “decentralize” health. That meant that the whole work plan, even the financial aspects, would be dealt with at a municipal level, instead of regionally. Thus it's one of the most energized sectors and has given the best results. Despite its limitations, it has achieved very high organizational levels in the comarcas, where there's now a midwives' movement and a “health brigadista” program, in which peasants receive workshops so they can deal with the most frequent and problematic illnesses in their own comarcas. To this must be added the work of the doctors who direct the hospital in the town of Wiwilí.
The mayor—a Sandinista, like the security chief—carried a lot of weight in the municipality. In addition to creating “sister cities” with cities in other countries and his other work in the mayor’s office, he paid attention to the peasants, listening to them without arrogance. They didn’t have to go to his office to resolve their problems. “The important thing is to respond, to give a valid answer,” he says. The peasants have confidence in him, they chat with him about their problems, see the expression of Sandinismo in him. “Let's learn to resolve problems, not to make reports,” he usually says.
5. The FSLN candidates to the new Municipal Council. The FSLN took the structure of comarca and village power into account, respecting and promoting the zone's natural leaders. These factors translated into an electoral victory for the FSLN in the areas where they were the most advanced. Hopefully they are also signs of the prelude to a dialectic process between the national power structure and that of the comarca.
Although followers, the peasants, particularly since July 19, 1979, have acquired the right to rebel, to criticize openly, to complain about government policies. It’s true that in most cases their criticisms have been more negative than constructive. But they’re only now testing their voices, previously muffled by the mountains and by Somocismo. Their critique was mainly a way of defending their “neutrality,” which they felt crushed underfoot. Thus, with errors and contradictions, and despite the war, they've been constructing an angry culture that characterizes their identity.
As El Arenal voted so voted the nation The 9,489 people who voted in the municipality of Masatepe were divided 53% for the FSLN and 46% for UNO—almost identical to Wiwilí. And, as there, most of the FSLN vote came from the municipal capital itself. The only comarca the FSLN won was El Pochote. Taken as a whole, “historic” El Arenal, a name once used for the whole rural area of Masatepe, voted as the nation voted: 55% for UNO, 41% for the FSLN. This wasn't as bad as the 18% the FSLN got in the outlying comarcas of Wiwilí, but there wasn't the same excuse either. Here in the peaceful department of Masaya, on gently sloping fertile lands southwest of the volcano, no contras threatened the lives of peasants as they trudged down to stand in line in the polling places. They had given a disproportionate number of sons to the war effort, but themselves did not suffer the daily angst of living in a war zone. How, then, do we explain their rejection of the FSLN?
What does it mean concretely to say people interpret patria from a local and class perspective? In the comarca now called El Arenal, it means to have water. Yet from three months before the elections until two months afterward, the people didn't have any. And the Electoral Action Committee (CAE), previously the FSLN Base Committee, did absolutely nothing about it. It’s not that they could solve the problem, but supposedly they were in charge of creating some minimal coordination, organization and mobilization of the people to resolve the comarca’s fundamental problems. At least that's how they explained it as vanguard. And they didn't do it. Every day people had to go over a mile to the highway to buy and haul water. Every day, without needing to say a word, UNO had a first-class argument in its favor.
Peasants who had children in school were worried about the school's security, given a rash of windowpane robberies. In honor of concertation, the FSLN members wouldn’t sentence the thieves detained by the police. The suspects were from the economically powerful Martínez family, previously linked to Somocismo and today UNO activists. The Martínezes seemed immune and invincible, so the Sandinista people didn’t want to bajar líneas and those from the CAE didn't want to talk about it. But the people criticized the FSLN precisely for this. They're basic, uncomplicated issues. You have to protect the health centers, the schools, the water service. You have to defend what belongs to the people.
One peasant woman, Dulce Maria, was at risk of losing her land and house. Because the threats came from the Martínez family, FSLN leaders didn't defend her or bolster her hopes. They sought a concertation with Martínez, but not with Dulce Maria. The poor like Dulce Maria voted against the FSLN-Martínez concertation.
Women fight for the right The FSLN tried opportunistically to take over any successful project in the comarca, without having invested any effort in it. For example, FSLN cadres tried zealously to control the women's chicken project: “We're the vanguard and everything has to be under our leadership.” The women reacted violently. “Get out of here with your policies,” scolded one. “We don't need you to come around and open our eyes; they're already open!” Leadership doesn't fall from the sky, as some Sandinista cadres seem to think; in the comarca it has to be earned.
The members and elected leaders of the chicken project are breaking one link of the dependency chain after another, both in the comarca and in their families. Together they reflect on their problems—like economic subsistence for their families and their comarca—and on the common hurdles they face as peasant women. Together they’ve begun to fight back against the political, religious and machista dependence embedded in and promoted by the system. They discuss local issues, the project itself; they reflect on the challenges of the community from a biblical perspective inside this space that they themselves have created. The women in the comarca don't need anyone to take them by the hand; as subjects of their own development, they’ve appropriated their own identity, and are slowly earning a leadership position in the comarca. Seeing is believing—they fought for water, taking on those who were responsible for the problem, and they got it for the whole comarca. There are many examples like this one. Why continue imposing lines when the people know where they’re going and want to get there on their own two feet?
Humility and arrogance The peasants in these comarcas participated in or supported the insurrection because of the humility of those who came from the city to live and fight at their side for a more just society. They remember those Sandinistas as uninterested in themselves, fleeing the National Guard, reflecting on the revolution and the need to fight injustice. Today arrogance, not humility, predominates among the FSLN cadres there.
Pedro, a comarca leader and CAE member, acknowledges the cost: “Arrogance and personalism have ruined us as FSLN representatives because they isolate us from the humble people. Often bourgeois militants came, some of them friendly, but others real bullies. Of course, you know what happened in the past, that we peasants were exploited; now we feel their indifference toward us as a class—though perhaps not as a party. We feel they’re trying to separate us and that really annoys us, because it’s arrogant. People go to the zone office to look for help and all they get is that indifference, so they have to go somewhere else for a solution.”
Humility is fundamental to peasant culture. Historically they were ground under the boots of the bourgeois class from the cities. This memory is still fresh, although for some it's mixed with the image of the “good benefactor.” In any case, poor peasants can distinguish those who fight humbly for their cause. “I knew some rich people who identified with us,” recalls Pedro. “One I remember was Carlos Barrios, a nephew of Violeta [Chamorro]. He was the FSLN political secretary in the San Marcos zone. He'd come to the house at night; we'd talk for a while then walk around pepping up people's spirits. He had every possibility of going to the United States and living another life, but he preferred to be with us, humbly, not arrogantly. So we identified with him too.”
The best FSLN cadres often meet with the party’s Base Committees right in the comarcas rather than calling all the comarca representatives to the zonal office. But even those good ones don't necessarily take the opportunity to spend time in the comarca itself, talking to the people. As representatives from “outside,” they could have established a closer relationship with the comarca, to strengthen autonomy and consolidate the peasant movement. They didn't try.
Family Tradition“I voted for the FSLN when my son died; this time I voted for UNO so I wouldn't have to give another son.” When family issues and historical tradition come into it, things get complicated.
As in the comarcas on the agricultural frontier, dependency on the big landowner has always been strong here, and the revolution didn't change that. The Martínez family in El Arenal is a case in point. And the Sánchez family, which moved away from El Pochote after their lands were confiscated, left a legacy of their “kindness” for having “given work” to the peasants. The López family, which is quite big, worked on the Sánchez lands before the revolution. They voted for UNO because they still remember the “good benefactor,” the model boss.
One delegate of the word now makes baskets for Santiago Martínez. And Dulce Maria, after trying to fight alone against the Martínez family, decided to go on selling tortillas to them. What other choice did she have? Politics divides, only the comarca unifies. No family is just on one side; they’re all divided.
The poorer you are, the more you have to depend on the Martínezes; they’re a real power, with lands all over Masatepe. They have vehicles, which is the only way the women can get their fruit to the Eastern Market each day. They’re also a walking whorehouse; the head of the family has more than two dozen children, “by the same old dog but dozens of different bitches from the comarca.” Blood is a lot thicker than ideology—if it’s spread far and wide it contributes to the patriarch’s “strongman” image. Since Martínez has land and vehicles, his family is also a source of employment. And they're religious leaders, to boot. Rosita is keeper of the keys to the hermitage and Jesus and Santiago are leaders of the charismatic movement; that’s how Santiago got the comarca’s main delegate of the word to make baskets for him. The revolution didn't break the dependence of the poor on the Martínez family.
Those who really have power don't talk about it, while those who don't talk as if they did. The Martínezes don't talk about their power; the FSLN cadres make a ceremony of theirs, speaking in the name of the blood spilled in the past but not going to where the living blood is today. Who's got the power?
Religion—imperialism’s heart and soul Those who were delegates of the word before the triumph aren't anymore, although some were CAE members and some even municipal candidates. During the years of the revolution, some former delegates were absorbed by the revolutionary institutions and believed themselves Delegates of the Absolute Truth. They were inclined to give sermons, but not to work with the people and their dreams. The charismatics filled this vacuum, and did it with greater participation, dynamism and conviction of their faith; today they’re a real force.
A large number of simple, poor people now believe more in Obando than in God, pulled along by the promotion of him by some priests and by Obando himself. For many, his image is a counterpoint to that of Sandinismo. Those who don't agree find little space or accompaniment to go on with their reflection and live out their faith.
The electoral campaign closed officially on February 21. That same day a much more effective and decisive electoral campaign began, promoted by the Catholic Church. It went on for four days and four nights, using the most sensitive weapon ever designed against peasants: religion. In comarcas all across the country the charismatics held all-night “vigils” until Sunday, election day. “Brothers, we are against the war, against militarism, as the Bible says,” they preached in El Arenal and probably everywhere else—identifying the war with Sandinismo and the army, never once with the counterrevolution. “We will vote so we can be brothers and not go on killing our own brothers, because that will bring the end of the world.” The threat of the apocalypse, understood as holocaust and not as revelation, was continual: “These are the final days; there will be hunger, children fighting against their fathers.”
Every kind of manipulation was used in the vigils. On the last night some “went out to fetch the dollars and from there to vote.” Others left convinced that God was with Obando and Obando with UNO, or vice versa. The priest from Masatepe stopped charging for baptisms, communions, marriages or funerals for the last two weeks before the elections. It was surprising, because he always rigorously made the peasants pay for any religious “service,” whether money or hens or fruit. That week a CAE leader from El Guarumo died. Once before this priest had even refused to say Mass for the martyred son of one of his own catechists; this time he not only officiated at the funeral, he didn’t charge, at least not money. But he exacted an ideological price, emphasizing several times over that the death was “a punishment.” Punishment for what? For working with the FSLN, of course. It's a world of inverted values, where images, voided of their authentic content, speak to confuse and even to kill.
The day after the elections, the charismatics gave thanks to God for having “won.” They had always said they weren't “political,” that you “shouldn't get mixed up in politics,” but here they were, giving thanks for “their” political victory. That same day one of the charismatic delegates of the word, upon seeing a peasant wearing an FSLN cap, told him, “We're going to take that hat off, head and all.”
The Sandinista cadres underestimated the people's religiosity, trying to replace it with another. But comprehending the alienating character of religion (theory) is very different from confronting it (method). Fighting religious fire with another fire doesn't work. Nor is the solution to pamper Cardinal Obando and the hierarchy. It’s to fight dependency through debate, without “lines,” even when they come from progressive priests. In a polarized vision, people themselves seem to have no existence. And that prevents the possibility of creating a real alternative. The old delegates of the word, who knew the comarca’s religious tradition so well, left the field to the charismatics, who sowed the seeds of discord that are now bearing fruit. The same peasant whose cap had been so drastically threatened, repented having been used by the charismatics: “I didn't know. When I realized, I'd already put my foot in my mouth and couldn't get it out.”
The conception some Sandinista cadres from El Arenal have about religion is that “it can be used, according to one's own interests.” They used it to win in 1979, they say, then afterwards they left it. “The problem was that we didn't keep on using it afterwards; that’s where we screwed up.” Religion as a utilitarian instrument. The religious hierarchy thinks of it that way, too, but the peasants don't. They live, breathe and celebrate Christianity; they don't “use” it. They believe in it and cry for it. This has to be respected; it's the space in which reflection can occur to make a liberating Christianity.
The cooperative and the chicken project Political polarization in the comarca leads nowhere. The “Pikín Guerrero” cooperative in El Pochote and the women's chicken project in El Arenal use the common language: comarca, peasants, work, economic survival. The former has been slowly breaking the dependency syndrome and creating its own structure where people live and express their faith. The latter is a space where women, together with their men, reflect about their reality based on the Bible and their own lives as poor people. The peasants themselves are creating and recreating their own spaces. And there's no room for lines or temples in them.
Since the FSLN didn't challenge the historic tradition, or memory, of the peasant-landlord dependency in general, we think that the pro-FSLN vote in El Pochote and part of El Arenal was mainly due to the impact of these two economic development projects and to the political consciousness they raised. They were the only ones that challenged the dependency relationship, and started from the comarcas themselves to do so.
The chicken project began in 1988 with 14 women—14 families. Today there are nearly 200. The project is designed sort of like a chain letter. At the beginning, each woman was given a certain number of chickens, according to the women's own criteria. Then, in a period of time agreed to by consensus—generally five or six months—each woman gave the same number of chickens to another woman, thus adding new links to the chain. The project was designed to spread out to the whole comarca, not to be a little self-sufficient island within it.
The cooperative originated shortly after the triumph, when peasants in the area took over the farm. It’s organized as a modified Sandinista Agricultural Cooperative (CAS), which means that the partners work most of the land collectively, but each family also has a small plot for personal consumption. Members have come and gone over the years, but the size has remained relatively stable and about 30% of the original founders are still with it.
Both projects are closely linked to the life of their comarca. They were born there and that’s where the products go. Both are schools for natural leaders, and the majority of inhabitants of these comarcas recognize the leaders of both. In the election campaign, neither project was held up for propaganda purposes, but they had more impact than any campaign activity. Both are expressions of democracy and economic self-sufficiency, which indirectly but effectively combat dependency, even questioning the relations between women and men—known as “machismo” in the city—through work rather than through cheap demagoguery. Both elect their leaders democratically and assume the work collectively. Both, obviously, are enemies of “lines” from above: “Change the leadership? That comes from outside. Nobody here said we have to remove them. We want them and will decide. When they send down lines that aren't decided by the base, problems always creep in.”
It’s impossible to prove our thesis about the elections, but the circumstantial evidence is strong. The polling center that covered El Pochote and Venecia went FSLN, but it is likely that El Pochote's vote pulled up its overall count. The cooperative is there as are six of its board members, including the vice president (the other two are from El Arenal). The catechist with the martyred son is also from El Pochote and she's the elected coordinator of the chicken project. She and the once president of the cooperative are highly respected for their work in the community. And last but not least the Sánchez family is gone; many of their farm hands of yesterday, men and women alike, now have their own land and are members of the chicken project.
The vote count at the polling place in El Arenal was much less decisive. While the chicken project and the cooperative have a strong presence in both comarcas that voted there, and have outstanding natural leaders, the omnipotent Martínez family also made its presence felt, as did Sandinista cadres who were not very representative and were not recognized as leaders.
“Leadership comes through inspiration, but it's also learned,” reasons the cooperative's vice president. “Any leader has to be a politician, and to be a politician you have to understand reality and document what you say. A leader creates consciousness together with the rest of the cooperative partners and the peasants in the comarca. It takes a lot to be a leader; you have to renounce everything, even liquor, because you have to be an example, not a loudmouth; you have to have authority so you can speak as a leader.”
…Speaking of leaders The limited work of UNO activists in the comarcas of Masatepe doesn't deserve much emphasis. We'll only mention one aspect. The UNO representative in El Pochote had a constant refrain when he went to the houses of peasants who were not cooperative members, promising local and visible things like money in exchange for people's vote: “Look, this land that the cooperative's on, we're going to divvy it up among you, those of you from around here. We're going to win arid then afterward we're going to divide.”
In an area where the land problem is pressing, his promise was like a wake-up alarm. It surely made some vote for UNO, which won. Yet the land problem still exits.
The Transition PeriodIn these days, as aspects of national policy are again being negotiated and the FSLN is beginning a process of revising, reorganizing and restructuring, the people flail between fear and hope, between crisis and challenge. Many are pressed into defending their lands, their jobs or their lives. In the midst of it, the questions keep leaping out. Where does real power reside—in weapons, the ultimate source of power? Is it enough to have and create greater space in civil society? What road should we take to recover power and help our people develop? And over and over the question: Why did we lose?
The poor, much more than the middle class or the bureaucrats, suffer the consequences of a government of business interests like the current one. They will have less access to education, health and land. That’s why the reactions in all the comarcas, from El Arenal to Wiwilí, are so dramatic.
Fear and loathing in El Arenal Agitation and tension were intense in comarcas like El Arenal after the elections. Rumors ran rampant. “After a bit we're going to divvy up the cooperative's trucks, and the land,” said the UNO activists. “We're going to change the teachers.” “No Sandinista better pass by my house,” UNO vigilantes could be heard shouting in the night.
“Ay, I didn't want this government,” lamented the coordinator of the chicken project. “I don't know what’s going to happen. They're going to try so hard to outwit us; their rancor hasn’t ended, in fact it’s growing.”
Talk like this brought back all the memories of Somocismo, the overseers who earned more and drove the others hard. “Are they going to want to bring them back?” People were suddenly much clearer, too, about how the charismatics had tried to politicize them. During the transition period, the Catholic hierarchy continued confronting the Sandinista government, showing itself ever closer to the government-elect’s extreme right wing, led by Vice President Virgilio Godoy. In the comarcas, too, priests sowed even more discord from the pulpit, presenting the big landowners as “saints” being attacked by cooperative members, who they called “thieves” for simply trying to defend the lands they had been given by the revolution. Fired up by this discord, UNO activists in La Concha, Carazo, violently took over ten cooperatives, with consequences that included one peasant dead.
The pastoral agents of the “Popular Church” stayed away from these scenes, even though they weren't hard to get to. They could have gone to help plant, because the peasants have development projects, not confrontational ones. To plant seeds of reflection together with the peasants too, because Christian base groups rooted in reality are beginning to grow in the comarcas. Their discussions of faith are lively; their hope breathes even in the midst of the anguish caused by the growing polarization that the temples themselves are directing.
There are also other reactions. Some cooperative members, though not those from Pikín Guerrero, consider that their lands “didn't cost anything,” so they’re willing to return them if they receive indemnification for the improvements. How alarming! How does one explain that after so many years of struggle, of resistance to imperialism, so many cooperative members still have this mentality? They still don't know that the Bible itself speaks of their right to land. The Sandinista cadres thought that by “giving” the land to them, they'd crease more consciousness, but the opposite happened.
Yet another reaction is that people are preparing economically for any surprise. The Pikín Guerrero cooperative has bought 50% of its fertilizer for the 1990-91 cycle. They want to be completely self-sufficient and not depend on the bank for anything. Housewives are putting in more hens. “We’ll always have beans and tortillas, and if the country gets really bad I'll just eat my hens,” says one. This attitude contrasts with that of the hitherto pro-Sandinista petty bourgeoisie: “Now’s the time to make money,” or “it'll be interesting to see the strikes.” Or even, once the strikers turned militant, “These barricades are irresponsible!”
Waking nightmares in Wiwilí In Wiwilí, only weeks after the elections, the bank circulated an order to give credits only upon presentation of property titles. It was a bombshell for the peasants. “We don’t want the stink of Somoza!” In Somoza’s time you had to go with a proxy—a person with possessions—to get credit. The peasants also risked being thrown off their land if they couldn't pay it back. In those days, the rich and the bank were the same thing. “Once they could pull a fast one on us, but not now,” peasants say today.
As in El Arenal and elsewhere, many peasants are taking their own measures. Some are switching crops to guarantee family consumption—crops that don't require credits for insecticides, because their cost is going up. They’re selling their calves or some instrument of production to pay off their debts and not owe the bank anything. The big cattle ranchers are taking advantage of this to buy up the calves cheaply to fatten and get on the beef export wagon, while peasants who can are hanging on to the few cows they have, to provide their family and comarca with dairy products.
The contras' armed propaganda during the electoral campaign is being revealed for what it was. When they went to vote, the peasants looked under the table for some little apparatus, but “we didn't see anything.” Another deception is that there was nothing when they came down the mountain the next day to collect the dollars they’d been promised. “They didn't say anything to us.” Little by little, they’re discovering the traps they fell into. For example, UNO promised that the war would end. Formally it has, but the threat of civil war persists. “When's it all going to stop, if that's what we voted for? The war was fought in the mountains and its protagonists were mainly peasants, but the peace was signed in Managua. It won't be simple to achieve an authentic peace in the field.
The zone is rife with tension and insecurity. Peasants are trying to figure out how to guarantee themselves a piece of land, “because we don't know what’s coming next.” But the mountains where they’re forced to look are strewn with mines. Some buy the first free plot they find; others push on toward Siuna, a zone somewhat less affected by the war. Getting a land title creates the same sense of urgency; people feel oppressed from all sides.
Those in the resettlements aren't thinking of returning to work the lands they left abandoned in the mountains—“I wouldn't be so crazy!” because they could end up dead on the fence post of their pasture from the mines or killed by some “link.” They’re looking for land someplace where no one knows them. “I know who fought or collaborated with the contras from my comarca,” said one displaced peasant, “and they know which of us fought against them. Forget it! The war made hate and it's not going to go away just by signing a piece of paper. We need land, but we have to get it somewhere else.”
“Those mountains have good water sources and fertile lands,” said another, “but they're all mined and the other people have arms caches buried all over the place. The only place you dare walk is on the paths they've made; to detour from them is to put your life on the line. Whoever got there first—the army or the contras—put the mines where any soldier from the other side who got hungry would look for food and find death. Even the animals are getting out of those mountains. Ayyy, the war still has a long way to go.”
It's a tough reality, so it doesn't go unnoticed that the FSLN pulled most of its cadres out of the war zones and transferred them to the capital. Their place now, more than ever, is where the action is, near the problems, discussing them. Will they only come back for the next electoral campaign?
We lost to win—Now what? The question rolls across the country like thunder: “We don't what's going to happen.” The most important thing so far is that, with their vote, Nicaraguans accelerated the coming of peace. Reason led the peasants to choose strategically.
Return to the Roots “We’re not going to talk to those UNO people until Violeta fails,” some Sandinista cadres say. “Those UNO people” also resist talking and “reconciling.” This abstract political discourse leaves the particularities of the comarca off to the side again. Despite the electoral reversal, one is hard put to find any rectification of the FSLN’s errors in the comarcas. It's not an issue of renouncing principles but simply of talking to the poor, taking an interest in their problems, understanding that, for them, local affairs are more important than national ones.
Some Sandinistas, it must be said, do see the challenge of getting closer to the peasantry, respecting their space, responding to their concerns. They’re leaders with “peasant tact,” like some in Wiwilí, for example: “We have to act from below. As an opposition party we’re going to fight so that Señora Violeta complies with what she promised. At no point are we, the Sandinista Front, separating ourselves from our people. For example, if El Triunfo voted for UNO, what do we do? Say the hell with you? No! That's when we're going to give them the most support, because we know that's the place that made the biggest error. So that's precisely where we have to give the most support. We haven't given one thought to isolating them. We're going to help because our struggle is for the people.”
Those in El Pochote, too, see the future with maturity and pragmatism: “Things might get better, but not for the poor. They'll give them some beans once or twice, but three times? Not a chance. So we’ll see how the people take that. At moments of tension for them, and for us, we have to talk to each other. The overseers are back, the ones who fight for the landowners, so you have to get the comarca’s support, because if they touch a cooperative, they touch everybody. Time will clarify the political and ideological differences. We Sandinista militants will work from the base, with much more humility.”
The Sandinista revolution can't be limited to a party. And it risks being co-opted by capitalism if it presents itself only as a national, multi-class movement. Sandinismo is a movement, but one with a birth certificate: with, for and by the poor. To be both national and class-based isn't a contradiction, it’s dialectically complementary.
Weave a popular economic strategy Up to now revolutionary movements have been utopian, pushing for the construction of a more just society. After decades of struggling against imperialism, after Sandino, Carlos, Camilo and thousands of heroes and martyrs, it's inconsistent to renounce all this and aspire to coexist with imperialism. When Sandinismo stops struggling against imperialism, it will stop being Sandinismo. To not struggle against the empire is merely to survive. And we've already survived many centuries. Will we now satisfy ourselves with more of the same?
It's possible to go beyond mere survival, to develop in spite of imperialism. But only if we succeed in maintaining a dialectic relationship between leaders and people. “The poor don't have a party, only necessities,” said Daniel Ortega, when he turned over the government on April 25. The poor opt for dignified humility and reject superciliousness. It’s necessary to design an economic strategy that starts with the poor peasants and other poor classes, and moves at a turtle's sure pace until it assaults the city and finally shakes the empire's domination. This moment of defeat could be the historic opportunity to weave together such a strategy.
Self-criticism at the base The Sandinista revolution is the best that our history has produced. Sandinismo is the party of those “without history.” But it must be understood that the revolution of consciousness is a process. It’s not possible in only ten swift years to erase centuries of exploitation and alienation.
Peasants are assimilating the consequences of having exercised their right to criticize and punish, a right that’s a fruit of the revolution itself. “I didn't think that with my vote I could change the FSLN,” they say. “All these reactions indicate that Sandinismo has already changed the course of Nicaraguan history and, thus, the past will never return. As, with time, the UNO government’s actions are revealed, the pro-UNO peasants and the demobilized contras themselves will face reality. Their social extraction will win out over any party policy; their necessities will impose themselves on the bourgeois avalanche against them, the poor. When that happens, the FSLN must be at their side.
This requires that the FSLN engage in a profound and democratic self-criticism. But it can't just take place at the high party levels in Managua. The peasants know the “screw-ups” that were committed so it's to them that they have to be acknowledged and reviewed. The Wiwilí mayor understood that: “So many things have to be said and corrected, and up to now there's nothing. The review of so many errors can't be done at the top, because that's where the lines came from and we lost the elections. We can't just wait with our arms crossed for them to correct things up there and send more lines down, because if we don't change we'll lose again. We have to do it from down here. The political secretary’s off in Jinotega saying 'we screwed up,' but, big deal, you have to say it right here, to the people we actually did it to.”
For this reason, it’s extremely important that the assemblies, and even the Congress itself, programmed for February 1991, be held in the comarcas and the barrios, in the middle of the social and political movements. The methods of struggle should be taken up with the greatest possible creativity, according to the reality of each social sector and place. The strike is one recourse, but only an urban one. The paralysis of Managua in the July strike left the peasant families penniless in no time, because their income is daily, from selling their products in Managua’s markets. That’s only one example.
The FSLN, its militants and its sympathizers should challenge the popular saying that victory has many parents and defeat is an orphan with a radical self-criticism, “from below,” so the electoral defeat can be turned into a strategic victory. The popular movements, the peasant and barrio movements are still toddlers. Their stunted growth threatens the revolution. Our democracy is war-disabled and our sovereignty has gone AWOL. We can't allow the revolution to be the price of peace.
Rethink revolution What does it mean to he revolutionary? What is revolution? Surely it isn't a cult of heroism or of the “common interest” in the abstract. It’s not a new religion, or a doctrine in which you live illusorily under lines from above, considering yourself for that reason alone to be a “new man.” Nor is it a legal framework that each new government can change. It isn't concertation between revolutionary masters and non-revolutionary masters. Nor is it the idea of revolution left over from the sixties. Definitions can kill the process. Socialism is still a dream and revolution a baby in diapers, between the pain of birth and the voracity of the dragon.
Revolution is traveling together. Both road and travelers are made en route, dialectically changing personal interests and common interests, the structure of local power and the structure of national power, the tasks of the people and those of their leaders, autonomy and vanguard, faith and work. It’s a process, a social relation based on self-determination, anti-imperialism, sovereignty and democracy of the individual as well as the nation, the comarca or the barrio, social organization. Values are built as love is: the democracy of love, sovereignty of love, anti-imperialist, anti-machista love; as friendship, community, production are built. Revolution is the political, military and economic strategy that seeks to build a new society based on the interests of the grassroots majorities.
Break the dependency syndrome To be revolutionary and make revolution, it's not enough to be conscious of the capitalist system's injustices, of the power of ideological domination and dependency. You have to go from mere consciousness and knowledge to knowing how to really combat the power of domination. Without creating another religion. It’s about turning what’s evident, what seems a logical “given”—like the bases' power in the comarcas, for example—into a problem, to thus discover the real threads of domination. Its also about people, owners of their own history, attacking the root causes of domination, which are invisible to those from outside, but quite real to those in the comarcas.
Peasants, like the urban poor, are subjects, not objects. Comarcas, like barrios, are spaces where local power is woven. Serving the popular majorities cannot be mere demagoguery, cannot be political confrontation and ideological polarization. Any economic project framed in political confrontation has its grave already dug. Any religious, social or educational project with an opportunistic look to it, with a utilitarian, short-term, politicized glint in its eye, designed for interests foreign to the comarca, is condemned to early death. Anti-imperialism, revolution, all the national values, will not take root if they're not translated into local parlance and concrete acts.
After the presidential inauguration on April 25, the powers that be sought to “control” the people: Cardinal Obando y Bravo with his religious-political discourse and President Violeta Chamorro with her political-religious one. A dependent people will follow—at least for a time—whoever possesses the most charisma, as Peruvians did with Alan García and North Americans did with Ronald Reagan. If the FSLN joins this competition to “adopt” the masses, it will be officiating at the wake of this phase of the revolution. The people cannot be the object of dispute among those who seek to control them, looking askance at their own power structures. Dependency is not combated by coddling or by substituting the old master. It is combated with a new horizontal structure in which people are the subject and leaders the interpreters and faithful channels of their hopes. The people do not need to be adopted. They don't need masters, whether in robes or ties or cowboy boots. The colonialist thinking that considers the poor “eternal children” should be abolished in revolutionary practice. Dependency is dismantled by building autonomy, by “coming of age,” experiencing the “rite of passage” in the mass organizations, among women, in the comarcas and the barrios. Our people decided on July 19 and then again on February 25. Now they know that they know how to decide.
The FSLN has six years to democratize, to return to the poor where it was born, and to initiate a slow, sure-footed insurrection of love, designing and implementing an economic strategy from below. Without resurrecting vanguardism. Without manipulating religion. Without pamphleteering in the comarcas, barrios and social movements. Looking instead from the local problems to the national, forging self-sufficiency and autonomy. Debating, democratizing the structures of power, filing “lines” in the wastebasket of history. Cleansing corruption and opportunism. Because an organization only gains credibility through that of each of its leaders.
The day this is achieved, the irreversibility of the revolution will be confirmed. Revolution is not a means for consolidating the FSLN; the FSLN is a means for consolidating the revolution. We lost, but to win a Sandinista National Liberation Front at the side of the poor. To repeat: “We erred to win.”