Nicaragua, forlorn.

Author:Colburn, Forrest D.


MANAGUA--There are few visible signs that Nicaragua had a traumatic Revolution 30 years ago. The ever-present soldiers with their AK-47s are gone, along with their jeeps and trucks. Gone, too, are the billboards, posters, murals, and graffiti with the revolutionary exhortations of the Sandinistas. The newspaper Barricada (Barricade) has vanished and so have the plethora of magazines, pamphlets, and books devoted to political and economic change. More noticeable, Nicaraguans are relaxed, at ease. There is no "mobilization," little talk of politics, and no expectation of imminent change. There is no sense, either, of danger.

The surprise is that otherwise, so little is different. Nicaragua has not undergone a metamorphosis. Except for being stripped of the material and emotional trappings of the Revolution, Nicaragua looks remarkably unchanged from the 1980s. While there are more people--the population has nearly doubled--Nicaraguans, too, say "nothing changes" in the country. "We are stuck in history," sighs Ver6nica Soils, a welleducated professional. "Reading the newspapers here makes it seem like so much is happening, but it is an illusion--the country does not change."

Solfs's conclusion is harsh yet persuasive. For all of us, Nicaraguans and foreigners alike, who had hoped the Revolution would usher in progress, the ensuing decades have been disappointing. Nicaragua is a poignant case--perhaps just one of many--that there are stark limits to what politics, radical politics in particular, can accomplish in the poorer countries of the world. It is a lesson that extends to the international community. There is nothing the U.S. secretary of state can do (other than engage in diplomatic niceties) to "help" Nicaragua. The country must find its own way despite the constraints, including those deeply embedded and poorly understood in Nicaragua itself.

Solfs's sober analysis echoes another Nicaraguan woman in the mid-1980s, who asked me, "How much can we Nicaraguans change if we are the same people?" At the time, she seemed cynical, but 30 years later, it's clear that the staggering weight of history, custom, and culture has taken its toll. Indeed, in too many of the truly poor countries of the world, broad-based "development" is elusive.


In the 1980s, the Nicaraguan Revolution was widely held to be an exciting turning point in the history of Latin America. With the overthrow of a family dynasty, the Somozas, who had governed this small Central American country for 43 years, such claims seemed thoroughly justified. The Somoza government was notoriously corrupt and authoritarian. By the time the last of the ruling Somoza family fled in July 1979, they had amassed a fifth of the land under cultivation, as well as dozens of firms ranging from the Mercedes-Benz dealership to slaughterhouses to sugar refineries. The revolutionaries of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation promised a new beginning for the country--more egalitarian, more just, and able to unleash the nation's tremendous potential.

These early years were intellectually stimulating and emotionally invigorating. There was hope, but also a painful acknowledgement of the cost of political conflict. Gunshots from militia training grounds could be heard outside Managua. At mid-day, police at intersections in Managua would halt traffic so army trucks could pass, carrying the dead or wounded soldiers from the skirmishes with the American-backed counter-revolutionaries, the contras. Moreover, chaos from the attempted economic "transformation" Inflation became so bad that for a while, it was necessary to carry a bag of currency just to buy lunch.

In February 1990, the country held elections. The Sandinistas were confident they would win. They didn't. With their loss came the end of the revolution. It was a little more than a decade of an attempted radical restructuring of state and society. Still, some bold policies were implemented--agrarian reform, nationalization of the banking sector, and a host of social welfare programs. By 1990, the country was visibly exhausted from armed conflict, as well as social, economic, and rhetorical battles. It was time for peace, and the president-elect, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, offered national reconciliation within what she called "the Nicaraguan family."

Some 45,000 Nicaraguans died in the insurrection against the Somozas. Another 30,000 died in the fighting between the Sandinistas and the contras. The economic costs of the Revolution were just as high. Nicaragua had become the second poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, ahead only of Haiti. Nicaragua's economy in 1990 was at the same level as it was in 1942.


Nevertheless, some Nicaraguans, including ranking Sandinistas, believed that deep structural reforms, from property ownership to class and gender relations, had been carried out. As the Sandinista cartoonist Roger Sanchez put it, "the seeds were planted" for a new, better, more prosperous society. Nicaragua would not only rebound but flourish.

By 2012, 32 years after the Revolution, Nicaragua is no longer in the news.

It was a perfect moment to focus on the long-term consequences of this revolution and suggest lessons for other, similar upheavals-across North Africa and beyond.

Fitting the lingering paradigm of the "Third World," which always had a whiff of socialism about it, the Nicaraguan revolutionaries were preoccupied with class inequity and determined to level the differences. Today, however, Nicaragua is still divided by class and an urban-rural divide. Most well-heeled families have retained their wealth, though they've often had to scramble to hold onto it. It does appear that members of the middle-and upper-classes have more respect--or at least more sensitivity--for the poor majority than they did in the past. Or maybe, as one longtime expatriate, a Harvard-educated business and public administration professor, John Ickis, says, "Members of the upper-class are just wary of the poor."

The poor majority, for its part, seems to have a sense of resignation about...

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