One of the more unusual events in the long history of popular uprisings against despotic regimes took place in Nicaragua on the night of 27 June 1979. The grip of the Somoza dynasty, which had ruled the country for more than 40 years, was slipping. The Sandinistas had advanced from their rural strongholds into the towns, and by early June they controlled the working-class barrios in the east of the capital.
President Anastasio Somoza Debayle confiscated his cabinet members’ passports to prevent them deserting and took personal charge of the counter offensive against the densely populated Sandinista stronghold in Managua. When his ground troops were thwarted by the guerrillas’ barricades and traps, he sent in the airforce. The Sandinistas realised that if they stayed put, both they and their supporters would suffer heavy casualties. On the morning of 28 June, Somoza’s National Guard moved in for the final offensive. Meeting only sporadic sniper fire, one-by-one they recaptured the Sandinista barrios – and found them almost deserted.
Under cover of darkness the previous night, an enormous, silent retreat had taken place. More than 6000 insurgents left the city in single file and travelled on foot, by alleyways and rural pathways, over bare volcanic hillsides, to reach the militant neighbouring city of Masaya. The retreat, El Repliegue, took two days. A lot of people temporarily lost their way on the 20-mile trek but, thanks to the Sandinistas’ secrecy, careful planning and extensive support networks, only six were killed. (One of them was my wife’s eldest brother, Socrates.)
Somoza rejected the US ambassador’s call for his resignation. He mounted a ferocious attack on Masaya, dropping napalm from planes and firing indiscriminately into the city from the overlooking colonial fort of El Coyotepe. Despite heavy casualties, Masaya held out. Somoza’s isolation and lack of effective command of the country were clear for all to see. In July, abandoned by his former US allies, he fled the country and left the way open for the Sandinistas to take power.
El Repliegue has been symbolically re-enacted every June for the past 32 years. Thousands of people, led by Sandinista militants, head of out Managua on foot, arriving in Masaya in the small hours of the morning. Invariably, the focus of attention is Daniel Ortega, president until 1990 and again since 2007. He usually makes the whole journey on foot, accompanied by crowds all the way, and anyone determined enough to speak to him can do. Along the route, there are stalls, bands, speeches, dancing competitions.
Much of the international shine has now gone from the revolution, but in Nicaragua the revolutionary slogans and marches attract huge numbers of young people who weren’t born in 1979. Sixteen years of neoliberal governments after 1990 took their toll, not least because the revolutionary potential of 1979 had been exhausted by the Contra war and the economic sanctions of the Reagan years. The revolution on offer today may not challenge the neoliberal order of low-wage clothing factories and one-sided trade agreements. But – with its close links to left-wing governments in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador, and making full use of the aid they send – most people don’t see a more attractive alternative.
Ortega knows this. He will be standing for re-election in November as the only viable candidate: opinion polls usually give him less than 50 per cent of the vote, but his rivals barely reach double figures. The business community is preparing for another four years of left-of-centre government, and the new US ambassador, due to arrive shortly, is likely to do the same. The result is perhaps less important than whether the elections are seen to be clean. National pride and Ortega’s anti-imperialist rhetoric have led him to denounce international observers: does Washington allow observers for US elections? But pragmatism – always a feature of Sandinismo and now more than ever – is likely to prevail, and international monitoring be allowed.