Thanks be to God and to the Revolution

David Lehmann

The silhouette of Cesar Augusto Sandino, his hands clasped behind his back, his left foot pointing outwards, wearing high-laced army boots and a ten-gallon hat, is the universal emblem of Nicaragua’s revolutionary movement. In the 1920s Sandino led a prolonged guerrilla campaign against the US marines who had been occupying his country since 1912. The Marines withdrew, but left in their place a surrogate, the National Guard, whose commander, Somoza, had Sandino murdered after he had laid down his arms in 1934. Somoza seized power and kept it until he was shot in 1956. He was succeeded by his son, who was overthrown in the revolution of 1979 and killed later in Paraguay. The National Guard – the personal instrument of the Somoza dynasty and the chosen arm of the United States – behaved like an army of occupation right to the end. The end came on 19 July 1979 when the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional took over the government of Nicaragua.

The class struggle nonetheless continues – but where? Obviously, in military clashes with the counter-revolutionary and Honduran forces trained and financed by the US Government. But what of the internal front? In the countryside a large capitalist farming sector remains, but there is little conflict: the Government deals with the farmers, negotiates the wages they pay and the prices they get, and the workers seem disinclined to take disruptive action. In the towns, industry (such as it is) is now mostly in the hands of the state and again one hears little of shop-floor conflict. In short, the state has gained a position of indirect but fairly firm control over the conditions of production and over the production process itself. Yet ideological clashes continue and they continue in the most unlikely place: within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

This isn’t what one would have expected. The Archbishop of Managua, Miguel Ovando y Bravo, was a fierce opponent of Somoza and he welcomed the revolution when it finally came in July 1979. He then began to have doubts, however, and in June 1981, falling in with public declarations by the Pope on this specific issue, he called on those priests who occupy high positions in the state and in the ruling party, such as the poet Ernesto Cardenal, to give up these involvements. This call, as he no doubt realised, was tantamount to a declaration of war.

How could one of Somoza’s most outspoken critics (one of the few, of course, who could speak out at all during that period) become the leader of the internal opposition to the Sandinista revolution? The standard answer is that the Archbishop was never a Sandinista: he merely identified with those sectors of the Nicaraguan oligarchy which Somoza excluded from power, Somoza’s government was not simply a dictatorship: he ran the state as if it were a private business organised for the benefit of his family and their mafia, who used their power to exclude others from the ‘action’ This became very obvious after the earthquake of 1972 which destroyed most of the old capital city and created fabulous opportunities for those involved in its reconstruction. Somoza himself put up a cobblestone factory which got all the orders for paving the new roads, of which there were a great many since the city was redesigned as a sprawling network in order to maximise the future value of the empty spaces Somoza was buying up between built-up areas. To protect this sort of business the family had to find associates and clients, hitmen and ‘fences’, thereby extending personal greed into a system of government with a dynamic of its own. The traditional oligarchy of cattle-farmers and coffee-producers, as well as the new bourgeoisie which blossomed independently of the Somoza apparatus in the cotton boom of the Sixties, felt excluded and sometimes threatened. The murder in 1977 of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, a member of Nicaragua’s most distinguished family and the editor of the only (mild) opposition newspaper, united the country in opposition to Somoza and sealed the fate of his regime.

What made this movement for unity into a revolution was the Sandinistas’ expanding popular base and their initial skill in moulding a bunch of squabbling Marxist groups into a coherent force under one nationalist banner. The coalition which was so carefully nurtured in the two years leading up to the overthrow of Somoza began to crumble at the edges as the new government, dominated by the Sandinistas, initiated a far-reaching programme of social and economic change. The Archbishop, then, has not shifted his ground or his loyalites: it has merely taken some time to become clear to everyone that the Sandinistas are now, as they always were, in charge of the revolution.

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