In 1992, when I was a thirtyish writer promoting my first short story collection, I was interviewed on a Montreal radio station. Observing that three of the stories took place in Sandinista Nicaragua, the interviewer suggested a parallel between my generation’s solidarity with the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979−1990, and Ernest Hemingway’s commitment to Republican Spain. Strangely, this idea had never occurred to me before.
The Nicaraguan Revolution ended the savage dictatorship of the Somoza family (1934−1979), which was an extension of the occupation of Nicaragua by the US Marines (1927−1933). The revolution resisted Cold War polarization. The government was young and flexible, led by an alliance of radicalized priests, open-minded businessmen and their guerrilla sons, peasant leaders, students and writers. The Sandinistas implemented land reform and the most successful literacy campaign in history, eliminated polio, revived moribund handicraft traditions and an intriguing literary culture and introduced a mixed-market economy. The Sandinista leadership, with its varying ideological textures of reforming Catholic Conservatives, radicalized Liberals and Marxist guerrillas, avoided becoming enshrined in a single strongman, as had happened in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. In contrast to Cuba, Sandinista Nicaragua never tried to control movement in and out of the country: anyone who wanted to leave was free to go. In 1984 the Sandinistas held elections that were, as The Economist reported at the time, a little less open than those in democratic Costa Rica but as good as elections in Western-allied Mexico. (The West’s closest ally in Latin America at this time was Chile, a military dictatorship that did not hold elections.)
Even some of the revolution’s failures turned into successes. Unlike most earlier Nicaraguan governments, the Sandinistas tried to integrate the country’s remote, largely Afro-Caribbean and English-speaking Atlantic Coast into the national fabric. Both the literacy campaign (initially offered only in Spanish) and the arrival of the army led to confrontations, particularly with the Miskito Indians. In 1982, about 100 people died in conflict between the Sandinistas and the Miskitos, and thousands fled or were removed from their homes. Yet by 1985, Nicaragua had negotiated an aboriginal autonomy agreement that has become a model in the Western hemisphere, and from which twenty-first century Canada could learn valuable lessons. The literacy campaign was expanded to the English, Miskito, Sumo and Rama languages; the Miskitos came home, kept their guns and defended their territory themselves. In 1985, Newsweek, habitually skeptical about the Sandinistas, published an article that applauded the region’s transformation.
The Sandinistas were undermined by blinkered old men. US President Ronald Reagan claimed the Sandinistas were Soviet agents; the Soviet leadership, decreeing that the Sandinistas were not socialists, kept its distance. By the mid-1980s, most of Nicaragua’s aid came from sympathetic, oil-rich countries such as Iran and advanced economies such as Sweden or Canada, where Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, in spite of his personal friendship with the Reagans, made Sandinista Nicaragua the largest Central American recipient of Canadian foreign aid. Reagan, by contrast, pooled hundreds of millions of dollars that came from direct, indirect and sometimes—as the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal would reveal—illegal sources to inflict high-technology warfare on an impoverished rural nation of fewer than four million people. Reagan’s war killed at least 50,000 Nicaraguans, yet, in spite of their superior technology, his Contras never captured and held a single Nicaraguan village. The US propaganda war was even more damaging, smearing the Sandinistas’ record, and leaving enduring misconceptions about the nature of their government.
In 1990 the Sandinistas became the only revolution in history to leave office by way of the ballot box, brought down by the unpopular military draft they had implemented to fight the Contras, by the cooperativization of agriculture, which alienated peasant supporters, and by US President George H.W. Bush’s threat to Nicaraguan voters that unless the opposition won, the war would continue. Rather than institutionalizing democracy, the 1990 elections punctured Nicaraguan pride and idealism, which collapsed into a pervasive culture of corruption and exploitation. The party that rules Nicaragua today uses the Sandinista name but, with the exception of President Daniel Ortega, includes no significant leader from the 1980s and inspires none of the hope of reform of that era. Most of the leaders from the Sandinista years have been outspoken critics of Nicaragua’s post-1990 governments.
As we mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Nicaraguan Revolution in 2014, I’m convinced that the radio interviewer was right. Just as Hemingway, George Orwell and André Malraux were changed by their commitment to Republican Spain, so Nicaraguan solidarity work altered the course of lives in my generation. Prior to my arrival in Nicaragua, I had studied in Bogotá, Colombia, and travelled in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Military roadblocks abounded in those countries; it was common to be hauled out of a bus in the middle of the night and spread-eagled and searched at the side of the road. Poor people were meek and submissive; social mores were repressive. In Nicaragua, by contrast, young people from poor families were full of bravado and eager to increase their capacitación, or skills, there were no roadblocks, civilians mingled with those in uniform and young couples necked on street corners. I found austerity and hardship and areas where hopes had been disappointed, yet also an ebullience at the realization that change was possible. At night the streets of the Barrio Martha Quezada in Managua, just back from the shore of Lake Managua, were full of roaming gringo solidarity workers, refugees from El Salvador selling hot pupusas, and young Nicaraguans both uniformed and in civilian dress. One night I walked to a poetry reading in a group that included a well-known Sandinista comandante on the fringes of the governing circle; he wore combat fatigues and a holster but had no bodyguard. Today the Barrio Martha Quezada is an eerie slum that is dangerous even in daylight, and the only Managua locales that feel safe at night are the capital’s three major shopping malls, where there are armed guards at the doors to keep out the poor. In this way, Nicaragua has become like many other countries. This is the most important reason to remember that once, for a few short years, it was different.