The July 1979 Sandinista victory in Nicaragua astonished the world. The triumph of the popular social revolution triggered a widespread reevaluation of what is possible in the cause for social justice. But a particularly prescient 1980 NACLA Report warned that any assessment of the Revolution’s prospects must consider “the country’s position in the global structure—its relation to economic and political structures it does not control.” With 25 years of hindsight on this anniversary of the Revolution, that statement succinctly describes where this NACLA Report picks up the historical thread. We reflect on the acquiescence of the nationalist revolutionary struggles in Nicaragua and El Salvador to the transnational neoliberal project. Mainly, how is it possible that these two countries, defined in many ways by their struggle for national liberation, have so clearly abandoned that possibility? In weighing such a sweeping question, we consider not only how this transition has affected the political economies of Nicaragua and El Salvador, but also how ripples from the revolutionary struggles continue to convulse these societies through remnant political movements, social activism, violence and emigration.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, observers correctly viewed the revolutionary struggles as attempts to overthrow the entrenched oligarchies in Nicaragua and El Salvador. But according to William Robinson, they incorrectly assumed that U.S. intervention sought to defend these old elites. He argues that U.S. policy aimed to undermine both the revolutionary movements and the old oligarchies, allowing Washington to successfully orchestrate the rise of a New Right with allegiance to the transnational neoliberal economy. Although outside forces unleashed by Washington contributed significantly to the Sandinistas’ downfall, Alejandro Bendaña contends that the Sandinistas’ increasing centralization and misappropriation of the revolutionary project also proved instrumental in their demise.
Nicaragua’s social movements have been forced to grapple with the changing political and economic climate. Florence Babb discusses the growing visibility and activism of Nicaragua’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population. Activists in this evolving movement are reaching out across borders to gain international support for recognition of their right to social inclusion.
Unlike in Nicaragua, the revolutionary movement in El Salvador did not achieve state power, but the country was no less ravaged by conflict. Joaquin Chávez explains how the violence permeating contemporary Salvadoran society is rooted in the historic cycle of violence between state terror and its challengers. According to Chávez, Salvadorans are still reeling from the psychosocial consequences of the war.
The brutality of the war caused more than one million Salvadorans to flee to the United States. Susan Coutin discusses the long and ongoing struggle of these émigrés to obtain legal U.S. residency. In Washington, politics and U.S. foreign policy goals have often outweighed the wellbeing of Salvadoran asylum seekers. Coutin notes that “migrants who lack permanent legal status continue to experience paralyzing uncertainty, agonizing family separations and economic difficulties.” As this report makes clear, those still living in Nicaragua and El Salvador endure similar hardships as the inequalities that sparked the revolutionary movements more than 25 years ago continue to plague the region in this new era.