With this issue, envío inaugurates a new column featuring personal accounts that address some of the most pressing issues in Nicaragua today. They reflect the feelings of the people interviewed and are not intended to present a definitive view of the topic at hand.
In November 1990, some 5,000 officers of the Sandinista army were laid off as part of an overall reduction process [known in Spanish as compactación] that is being financed by the government of Spain. The army now counts 28,000 men and women among its ranks, the smallest in all of Central America, with the exception of Costa Rica. The 5,000 officers will receive between six months' and one year's pay, access to land and other benefits. Yet in Nicaragua today, most of the "compactados", as they are called, will be hard pressed to find work and thus they face an uncertain future. Most of those laid off spent years in the army, some since its inception in 1979.
The following are excerpted from taped accounts by two former first lieutenants in the Sandinista army. Jorge García Meléndez is 28, José Luis Martínez, 35. These are not their real names.
Jorge García MeléndezI joined the army in 1980-81 when the first counterrevolutionary incursions were getting underway. That motivated me to join the struggle because I really felt that Nicaragua was being attacked in the wake of the revolution that had taken place in 1979. I was motivated to defend my country.
My experience inside the military was really something, because of the consciousness that the revolution created to defend the interests of the proletarian, the peasant, the worker.
Inside the army it was very confusing after the electoral defeat, especially after the huge February 21 FSLN demonstration; among the army members, the defenders of the country, there was tremendous confusion since nobody expected it. There were meetings to clarify issues with respect to the defeat but they weren't all that profound; it was said that we had to be calm, that the army wasn't going to disappear because it’s institutionalized in the Constitution, but that the new situation would be very difficult. Personally, I saw there was going to be real economic suffering within the army.
During 10 years, we made many sacrifices and earned salaries lower than almost any wageworker, but there was a high level of consciousness. Logically, after the defeat, we knew that a capitalist government was taking over, that the internal politics wouldn't be the same, that the link between the army and the party would be broken.
With the reorganization and restructuring of the army, the moment came when it was no longer necessary to be in the army, because there wasn't that much work, the war had ended. There was a drop in morale; obviously, the economic situation got worse, and with the little that the new government was giving, it was logical that a reduction had to take place. It was hard to accept this, but it had to happen, and even if the FSLN had won the elections, the reorganization and restructuring of the army would have taken place, because the elections were supposedly going to bring peace.
The policy of the new government is a capitalist policy; they want to get rid of those in the army with higher revolutionary morale, and leave those who they'll be able to instill with another doctrine, so that they defend the new government's interests. We should remember that the revolution's military doctrine is based on the party having state power, so it’s logical that in these ten years the army was oriented towards the interests of the proletariat. Now it's the opposite; those in the army say they're going to defend the capitalist interests of those in power now, of the Lacayos, the Chamorros.
When I became aware of the compactación, I was very upset about it; they called me in to officially let me know of the decision to lay me off. Even though I knew the process was underway, when they told me I felt like my youth had been ripped away from me— everything that a human being becomes through experience until you finally have the maturity to contribute socially and politically to the country. When they let me know, what I really felt was that I had lost a part of myself.
At my base, the majority of those laid off in November were compañeros who had already asked for discharges in the months or years before the reduction.
I have an alternative now, in that I've struggled over the last years to study mechanical engineering, but many of the 5,000 officers who were laid off have no preparation. How do they feel about being thrown out of work? They can't live outside the military. I'll be able to adapt to civilian life, although it's true that I miss military life because of the experience, the consciousness, the fraternal atmosphere—I miss all that. I have this problem of thinking I'm on vacation, like that's really still my place and I should be there. I'm really having a rough time right now, so that's why I say that when I got the news it really hit me hard, although at the same time I can understand it, I can say it's ok. Maybe I'll be able to make it in my career and get another life started, but the others, what are they going to do?
In terms of compensation, they're giving us a year's salary, a lot in one of the new urban settlements, and there's the opportunity to take an intensive course in small business administration, but what does that really mean? The majority of those laid off have a very low education level, and one course at INCAE [the Harvard-affiliated business school just south of Managua] doesn't mean that you'll magically be able to make it in business. I don't think you can compare these benefits with 10 years of struggle. There was a lot of opportunism in the army; there are people who have two to four cars and more than one house and, at the same time, there are officers who don't even have a place of their own to live. For instance, I still live with my father; I shouldn't be living with him at this stage in the game.
In any case, to me it was worth it to be in the army; I had some very important experiences in these 10 years. One of them was being able to live side by side with the working class, with the peasants, with the people, and to demonstrate to the world that an army with revolutionary consciousness really could exist—an army that would never turn its arms on the people. So for me it was worth it because I became aware of what the revolution meant, of what having revolutionary principles means.
My feeling is that if people call Humberto Ortega a traitor, as some are doing, they must have a reason. I respect the General and admire him for his long revolutionary struggle. He was the man who really was able to participate in the struggle against Somoza and bring him down. I can't call him a traitor. He's obliged to defend the new government because that's what the Constitution calls for; it says the army has to defend the country's sovereignty no matter who controls the government.
To me, a popular army is one that brings together all the social classes. It's popular because you'll find doctors there, workers, engineers, shoemakers, newspaper venders, all working together in a force that's ready to defend the country against any aggression it might face.
Now, with the UNO government, what's the role the army will have to play in this new situation? It will have to be faithful to its principles, the principles that exist within the army. I think it will have to be disciplined, conscientious and somewhat passive; it will have to use all its persuasive powers to resolve the conflicts that may arise.
José Luis MartínezBefore joining the ranks of the Sandinista Popular Army, I worked as a professional cadre of the FSLN in the Nueva Guinea and Muelle de los Bueyes zones. Around 1980-81, I started what I really wanted—military life in a completely revolutionary army—since after the triumph of the revolution a new life began to take shape for Nicaraguan youth and society in general. At that time, there was no corruption in the army, and the most important things were defending the country and teaching Nicaraguans that with this new life, with the revolution, we would have a well-formed and trained army that respected the interests of Nicaraguan society.
In general, the only thing I thank the army for now is all that I learned. Since we studied a lot, I was able to achieve a discipline that really characterizes the kind of army that's being formed now. And one important thing was the fraternal atmosphere among the entire collective that worked together.
I was a political worker in my unit. After the electoral defeat, other political workers and I exchanged thoughts; some said they were incredulous. When I spoke to the troops, I emphasized that we were going to have a capitalist government. I was a little disillusioned because the Nicaraguan people chose a different path. But we understood that the economic situation we found ourselves in at that moment was the one promised us by the imperialist war. Instead of getting depressed, I took heart, because I was personally clear that we stood by different principles. That’s changing now; everybody is going wherever the government takes them.
Personally, perhaps because of my political clarity, it became an anecdote: if the FSLN loses, I don't want to be in the army to confront that situation. What I aspired to ever since I became politicized was that the army would never repress the people the way the National Guard did. So maybe somebody didn't like some of the things I said in my unit, and that’s why I was classified as worthless and put on the list of 5,000 men [to be laid off].
After the change of government, there was no longer interest in working eight hours for a government that doesn't really defend society's interests. Currently there isn't a single army member that works for reasons of consciousness. 'If I'm not paid overtime, I don't work overtime.' No one is in the army because of revolutionary consciousness; and there's no longer a fraternal revolutionary atmosphere.
And there's total distrust with respect to the army leadership. Now there's talk of opportunism, petty corruption; right now it’s starting to come out that land may only be given out to high-ranking officials. The rest of us here totally distrust the direction this government is heading.
Under the new government, army personnel don't have the same position, the same consciousness or the same attention they had before, including, for example, in the military hospital. I gave them my papers showing that I was a demobilized member of the military, but they treated me only because it was an emergency and I insisted. But no state institution gives much importance to those papers, even the police. Profound changes are taking place in the military/police structures. It's not the same, and many people are complaining about the attitude of high-ranking officials. I think those still in the military are there in order to take home a paycheck, not because of any concrete definition of why they're there.
In my unit, I participated in meetings with a committee of cadres that was evaluating compañeros who really had disciplinary problems, in order to recommend who should be laid off. It isn't until now that I've realized that one of the characteristics of my unit was that we’d foolishly conduct meetings where we'd make internal decisions then go to the leadership, and they'd throw out everything. I say this because we sent them that evaluation, and they threw it out; they put whoever they wanted on the list, and it turns out that my name appeared in their last meeting.
It was a surprise to me when they told me, 'You're on the list.' No one told me or communicated with me officially. I was on vacation when they called the others in for individual talks. To me they just said, 'Here are your papers, and I managed to get you into a course on business administration and a $1,000 loan.' It would have been better not to bother with the money, because it was an insult. They insulted a lot of compañeros in the arms unit. They got rid of the more valuable people and left others that had even been jailed for stealing or corruption. And those that were more lucid, with a well-formed mentality as revolutionaries, as Sandinistas, were laid off.
They gave us six months' pay, divided three and three, based on what we made the previous six months, and they gave us a pistol, which the police are now harassing me for; they don't trust the demobilized. They also gave us other things like the training course, and nothing more—the land I mentioned earlier, which we can only wonder where it will be and how it will be distributed.
I don't have much to say about General Ortega, but one thing I don't like is the position he's taken with respect to the distribution of land to the majors, colonels, lieutenant colonels and up. He should be more aware that we former military personnel who are out in the street can't be what some military circles currently want—that we be their peons. Logically, what he should have done is divide the land equally. When I first heard about it, I thought it was going to be collective land for the army's subsistence and not for a small collective. It would have been great for army members to work in food production with the economic level of the country so low. But that's the other side of the coin from what we're seeing now.
From when I joined the revolutionary struggle against the dictator until the moment they fired me from the army I never expected to receive anything in return. I argued and fought with some compañeros who tell me I've been a total fool. ‘They almost got you killed, you're almost crazy and you don't even have an old car.' I left the struggle as I entered; I have nothing more than the benefits they gave me.
Being in the army was a great experience. I've become very disciplined; before I joined the revolutionary struggle I was impulsive, adrift, like everyone who lived through the 1970s here. Now I'm clearer on the methods of struggle, and with everything I learned in the army I can respond to anyone in any discussion, any movement. That’s what I most thank the army for—that I became more lucid.
I agree with the compañeros who sent missiles to the FMLN out of revolutionary solidarity, especially since this government would never aid a revolutionary movement. If their declarations are true, I approve their having sent that small number of missiles. They should have sent more. If I'd been a pilot in the armed forces, I would have gone to help the compañeros from the FMLN.
There's a very clear conception here of what a popular army is, and we saw it in action. It participated in health campaigns, clean-up campaigns. Wherever we were among the popular masses, the people trusted the popular army. The heart of the concept is that the army was with the masses and defended the grassroots interests of the country.
Now, according to the Constitution, the army's role is to defend national sovereignty. There's talk of defending society's interests in this new stage, but I don't think that's going to be a reality. We're already seeing it, like in the case of the land. The General is manipulating the land for the big guys.
Now they can call themselves military landowners, because a colonel will tell you he has 2,000 manzanas [3,400 acres]. I assure you that during the guerrilla years no one thought of having that land, much less a herd of cattle, ever. I never believed that the head of the political directorate of the army would be a landowner—never in my life—because it was clear: everything for the poor. Now there's none of that.