Interesting Times: Nicaragua In Revolution

September 25, 2007

Fifty thousand Nicaraguans died in the late 1970s overthrowing the brutal dictatorship that had ruled the country for half a century. Cities were reduced to rubble by Somoza's air force; factories and farms were destroyed. Over the next decade, 30,000 more died in a savage counter-revolutionary war, which left $17.8 billion in damages in its wake.[1] Some 200,000 Nicaraguans left the country during the 1980s, fleeing revolution or counter-revolution, or plain economic hard times.

People struggled to keep food on the table when inflation reached 33,000%, and under the drastic adjustment policies pursued first by the Sandinista government, and then by Chamorro. There were floods and droughts, a hurricane, a volcanic eruption that blanketed cities with ash, and a tidal wave that ripped sleeping children from their beds. Surviving this history, many Nicaraguans would surely appreciate the Chinese blessing, "May you live in uninteresting times."

This is the story of one family who lived through these interesting times. Their story is not everyone's. By no means did all family members support the Sandinista Party, but neither do they represent the experience of those most actively opposed to the revolution. Yet, they are representative in what they gained from the revolution, and in what they failed to gain-and in the ways that they struggled to live day to day amidst a relentless storm of change.

Olga Marina Sánchez Guido's son Nelson was only nine when the fight to overthrow Anastasio Somoza escalated in 1978. Even if Nelson hadn't been carrying packets of leaflets under his shirt for the older students of the Sandinista Front, Olga had cause for worry. To be young was a virtual crime. The National Guard, faced with a student-led uprising, routinely imprisoned, disappeared or killed teenagers—boys in particular.[2] Olga and Nelson's most frightening moment came in 1979, when the dictatorship took its last, brutal stand. They were staying with relatives in the town of La Gateada, when the Guard surrounded the town and began to bombard it. Olga's relatives, who turned out to be Guard supporters, fled secretly in the night, leaving her alone with her son and several young nieces and nephews. Olga took food she found in the house to the muchachos, the youngsters behind the barricades.

The muchachos mounted a diversionary action so women and children could escape the town. Olga led Nelson and her nieces and nephews out along the main highway. Years later, she pointed out different houses along the road. "In that house they gave us water," she said. "In that house, they gave us food. In that house, they let us stay the night. And in that house…they refused to let us in."

When they reached the town of Muelle de los Bueyes, they heard that Somoza had fled the country. Someone went around in a truck with a loudspeaker, and people came out to celebrate. Then a lone plane flew overhead and bombed the town again. The war was over, but not all the forces knew.

Two weeks later, when people were still digging through the rubble and trying to find water and food, Olga showed up at the door of the Ministry of Agriculture. "I want to help in the countryside," she said. A high school-educated woman in her late twenties from a farming area in Nicaragua's heartland, Olga had long dreamed of bettering the lot of her country's dirt-poor farmers. She landed a job and stayed with the Ministry throughout 11 years of the Sandinista Administration and two years into the new government's term.

In the early days, the entire staff from the minister on down ate lunch together in the makeshift headquarters. When Minister Jaime Wheelock was making copies, he'd say, "Olga, do you have anything I can copy for you?" Years later, Olga held a raid-level position in a trading company associated with the ministry's sprawling bureaucracy, but she rarely saw "the Comandante" in person. Wheelock was perhaps the most egregious example of a Sandinista leader who grew ever more aloof from the people he served. Yet a revolution can hardly maintain the intensity of the years of clandestine struggle, nor the cohesion and intimacy of the first moments of rebuilding and reshaping society. Olga recounts the story sadly for a certain camaraderie lost.

Olga heard of plans for a squatters’ settlement not far from where she had found temporary housing. While the previous government had forcibly evicted squatters, often removing them to areas far outside the city, the new leaders recognized such settlements as legitimate and, as far as possible, sought to extend city services to them.[3] Olga received a small plot and, like their neighbors, she and her husband Aristides set to building a home.

They did all the work themselves, making improvements whenever they could gather enough money to proceed. At the end of five years of hard work, their relatively spacious house had concrete-block walls, an asbestos roof, dirt floors and an outhouse. Olga shared a garden with her mother, sister and brother, who lived in a wooden house next door. The government brought in electricity, although it was enough to fight only one or two dim bulbs. The government installed potable water posts, but did not lay pipes for indoor plumbing. The family had to line up once a week to fill barrels.

Olga's two daughters, Xochil and Yara, born during this time, frequently fell ill from parasites despite Olga's efforts to keep the water covered and the dishes clean. The roads were never paved, and in the rainy season huge torrents would cut gashes down the middle, sometimes making them impassable. Rubbish collection was sporadic at best, and residents would leave garbage in uncovered piles. But no one had to fear eviction anymore.

Olga's mother, Doña Coco, was a seamstress. Complaining of headaches and other pains, she would sit all day stooped over a sewing machine. She sewed beautiful dresses with sashes and frills for neighbors, for her younger daughter Marivel, and for Olga's daughters. When she wasn't sewing, she was caring for animals—a parrot, the occasional stray cat or dog, pigeons—or helping out in the neighborhood.

Doña Coco and her grandson Nelson were the family members most active in the community. It was a relief to be able to attend meetings without fear of the National Guard.[4] As members of the local Sandinista Defense Committee (CDS), they went door to door vaccinating children. The CDS lobbied the city government for donated materials, and built a community center and a preschool using volunteer labor. Some of their projects were supported by foreign aid, mainly of the small-scale, people-to-people variety. In the mid-1980s, at the height of the war, CDSs were involved in food distribution and rationing, which embroiled the organizations in charges of favoritism and inefficiency.[5] Doña Coco got very discouraged later on with how few people shared the burdens of participation, but she herself kept on working.

Nelson, by then an outgoing teenager, volunteered with other students to pick crops in the countryside during his school vacations, and once helped a construction crew build a coffee-processing plant. Olga's husband Aristides and her sister Marivel had little faith or interest in such activities. Olga herself supported Doña Coco and Nelson's efforts, but was too busy with work, child care and school to join in.

Olga went to college, majoring in agricultural administration. Thanks to the Jesuit university's free tuition policy--made possible by large—scale government support—Olga could afford to study. For six years, Olga went straight from work to class several nights a week, while Nelson and Doña Coco helped out with the two girls. Professors demanded a lot from working students, and her job never allowed her time to study. After class, she'd take the bus home to tuck her children into bed. And at six the next morning, she'd be up to get them ready for school and begin the routine again.

In 1987, Olga’s husband Aristides lost his job as a bus driver. He started drinking heavily and became increasingly hostile to Nelson, who was not his child, although he continued to show affection for his two daughters. A year later, Olga's sister Marivel, who earned most of the money in her mother's household, also lost her job as a skilled draftswoman in a factory. She was a victim of one of the first waves of layoffs that resulted from the government's attempts to curb inflation that reached four, and later five, digits. For a while, Marivel seemed to lose her bearings. Like many, she tried hitting the streets each morning with a basket of baked goods. But the venture never took off.

Marivel and Aristides each decided to join the thousands of Nicaraguans who were fleeing to the United States. Marivel went first to Guatemala, where for two years she worked long, hard hours in a factory, and was able to send a little money home to her mother. Then she took the dangerous journey overland to the United States. Arriving in Los Angeles shortly before the riots, she had trouble finding a job, and struggled to fight deportation. Aristides went straight to Los Angeles, where he found work in a factory and occasionally was able to send Olga a hundred dollars or some children's clothes.

Olga was left to support not only her own household, but a good part of her mother's as well. This was late in the Sandinista Administration, when some things were easier-the market shelves were better stocked; there were no lines, and no rationing. But it became harder to afford the basics of food and clothing, even if you had a job. Public workers were no exception. "Marx had it wrong," one observer commented as people got thinner and thinner. "It isn't the state that withers away with socialism, it's state workers."[6]

Olga's moments of triumph had little to do with politics. They came when she brought home the ten pounds of rice and beans and five pounds of sugar that supplemented state workers' meager salaries each month; when she bartered some possession for something more urgent, or managed to spend her money before, not after, a major devaluation; or when Aristides sent dollars from the United States. One breakthrough came when her office assigned her a broken-down Honda, which she could use to commute to work and the university. The only problem was she couldn't drive. She learned-and fast.

Olga's situation was fairly typical of what the revolution meant for women. She occupied a professional post in the Ministry, one that in earlier times would likely have gone to a man. Although top jobs were still generally reserved for men, the ranks of women expanded in the work force. Men were mobilized for war, and there was a general sense that "the people," who even in the most retrograde party official's vocabulary included women, could now do tasks once reserved for an elite.

Life in the home was much slower to change. "Lantern in the streets, darkness at home," was how some described the discrepancy between a number of party members' public and private behavior. Women did virtually all of the "second shift": the housework, cooking and childcare. Their wages went for household expenses, while many husbands spent theirs on rum—or mistresses. The bulk of the volunteers for community activities were women. Their husbands often paced the house while they were out at meetings after dark, and yelled at them when they returned.

Women's organizations, from the official Sandinista group AMNLAE to more feminist offshoots that later started independent "Casas de la Mujer," taught women that they did not have to tolerate physical abuse. "We speak to the husband," said one women's organizer in a new squatters' settlement. "But if that doesn't work, we tell the woman that she can leave her husband. She has to learn it is possible to live alone. I do it."[7]

Nicaragua's conservatives believe the revolution led to a loss of moral values. Even though abandonment by husbands, single motherhood, and common-law marriages had long been common, women now felt freer to leave their husbands or boyfriends. Young people stayed out at night, and, like Nelson, went on volunteer missions away from their families. People were less likely to call their bosses or professionals respectful titles like "licenciado." In the workplace and the home, "compañero" or "compañera" (friend or colleague) became the term of choice.[8] Significantly, one of the first measures adopted by President Violeta Chamorro was to ban the use of "compañero" in the ministries along with the wearing of miniskirts.

As resident’s of Managua, Olga’s family did not have to fear night-time attacks nor endure blackouts lasting several days, as did town-dwellers in the North where the Contras were most active. But they were hardly unaffected by the war. In the early years, many Managuans joined militia to protect their neighborhoods. And there were moments of great tension when a U.S. invasion seemed imminent.

Olga's brother Jairo was the closest family member to go to war. He was drafted and sent to Boaco-Chontales, where he was placed in charge of (and had to carry) his battalion's heavy communications equipment. Olga had grown up in this region of independent, frontier ranchers and farmers. There the Contras had deep, genuine roots —and thus it was the site of some of the war's worst fighting. During this time, Doña Coco was never free from worry. She scraped together packages of candy, cookies and personal necessities to send to Jairo at the front. Once she made a long trek into the countryside with other mothers when the army arranged a gathering for families, and returned happier for having finally seen her son. After his two years of service, Jairo came back, mercifully unscathed. For months he barely spoke; only gradually did his former cheerful nature reemerge. Even though he was a veteran, he could not find work. He enrolled in an electrical training institute so he could at least learn a skill while unemployed.

At that time Nelson was approaching draft age. He was so eager he tried to volunteer. Although Olga believed he had a duty to serve, she was relieved when the recruiters turned him away. Nelson was devastated. They told him that since the war was winding down and be was a good student, they wouldn't sign him up until he graduated from high school. By then, the war was over.

Although Nelson and Jairo's willingness to comply with the draft was not atypical, the draft was highly unpopular with many, particularly in those parts of the countryside where the Contras were active. Army recruiters would show up one day, followed by Contra forces the next. Fernando, a young boy on a remote farm in Camoapa, once told me he used to hide whenever he heard anyone approach. It could be the army or the Contras; it did not matter which. He did not want to fight.[9]

In the late 1980s, Nicaraguans began to see tantalizing glimpses of peace, as the government moved dramatically forward with the Central American peace accords. During this exhilarating, anxious time, nervous Sandinista and Contra soldiers met in ceasefire zones to share cigarettes. Unsure whether or not they would return alive, peace commission members rode out into the mountains to meet Contra leaders. Families rushed to newly opened border crossings in search of relatives living in Honduran camps. In the war zones, government gestures were not enough to win back confidence shattered by years of war, while many Sandinista supporters believed the government was moving too far too fast, and getting little in return. The nation pinned its hopes on the February 1990 elections; one way or another, maybe they would bring peace.

When word filtered out that Violeta Chamorro had won the elections, the country was suspended in an eerie state of shock. For those who supported the Sandinistas—like some members of Olga's family—it was like looking over the edge of a cliff. Chamorro's UNO coalition was so taken aback by the prospect of governing this unruly country that it held no celebration. Everyone describes the day after the elections as the quietest day they can remember.

Soon, however, the country entered a state of feverish activity. Worried that the new administration's policies would be unfavorable, squatters occupied vacant lots, while peasants and farmworkers took over farms. The Ministry of Agriculture busily churned out formal titles for land they had distributed but had never bothered to legalize. In some cases, government or party officials transferred state property to themselves or others. This ranged from giving a Lada—-the small Soviet-made car whose doorhandles always fell off—to public workers in compensation for a decade of hard work for dismal wages, to more serious abuses. Fearful that war might break out again, people hoarded rice and beans, or hid weapons.

In the end, the transition was peaceful, if a bit surreal. The first conflict came several months later, when unions called a national strike to protest broken wage agreements and threats of layoffs, as the new government sought to downsize and privatize parts of the public sector. Strike supporters rekindled unwelcome images of the insurrection when they tore up paving stones and erected barricades to ward off attacks by strikebreakers. Chamorro called out the army to confront the strikers—another surreal moment, since the army was still Sandinista, although it had pledged to support Chamorro's govenment.

Nelson helped erect barricades in his neighborhood. He described what happened when the army came in: "Excuse us, muchachos, we have to clear the streets," the soldiers explained. Strike supporters sat by peacefully; some brought the soldiers coffee. Once the barricades had been cleared away and the soldiers were marching off, one turned to Nelson and winked, "Next time, son, build them higher." Later two men rode by on a motorcycle, and shot into the crowd. A 17-year-old boy standing next to Nelson was killed. The strike brought to the surface divisions which had remained hidden even during the height of the war. Two of Olga's neighbors threatened to set fire to her car because, they said, "We know your son is with the strikers." Olga and Nelson stood guard all night. The threat was never carried out.

After Chamorro's victory, a number of Nicaraguans returned from Miami, Los Angeles and other parts of the United States, expecting to repossess their old houses, plantations and factories. The person who had owned the land where Olga's neighborhood was built sent agents to tell the several thousand residents to clear out. But people were not about to move from the homes they had built and lived in for years. Eventually, the owner settled for a smaller neighboring lot, the site of a more recent squatters' occupation. Similar episodes took place throughout the city and, especially, in the countryside.[10]

The continuing economic crisis hit the family hard. The state trading company where Olga worked was privatized, and not long after that she was laid off. When the ax fell, she had to fight to receive her full severance pay. She received several thousand dollars from U.S.AID-funded program to downsize the public sector, as well as the old Honda.

Olga used part of the money for a round-trip ticket to Miami. She bought shoes and clothes to bring back to sell. But with un- and underemployment reaching a staggering 58%, her neighbors bought on credit, and some couldn't pay her at all. Having lost most of her capital, Olga sold the Honda to make another investment. Now she wants to start a hardware stand, stocked mainly with Nicaraguan, not imported, items. Given her determination, she may succeed. But she will be competing with tens of thousands of laid-off workers all starting small businesses with little capital during a recession.

Not everything has grown worse. Since Chamorro took office, electricity service in the neighborhood has improved, some roads were paved, and running water is due to be installed. U.S.AID is funneling substantial money through Managua's right-wing mayor, Arnoldo Alemán. Olga is impressed. "He seems to have it together," she says. ‘He's fixed up the neighborhood."

The impact of Olga's unemployment has been partly mitigated by Aristides's return from Los Angeles. After he lost part of his foot in a work-related accident, the company paid him $10,000, which seemed to him a great windfall. Aristides bought a used pick-up truck and some household items, and headed back to Managua. He now runs a business carrying lumber to Managua. His main client is Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who is building a cathedral with financial help from the owner of Domino's Pizza.

While in the United States Aristides joined an evangelical church, which he credits with helping him stop drinking and teaching him to value his family. Olga, who did not actively practice religion before and still remains a bit leery of evangelicals, now attends church with him—a result, perhaps, of having lost some of her faith in politics.

Nelson, who dreams of being an architect, attends college at night. He helps Aristides in the business. Doña Coco continues to sew. Marivel finally found steady work in Los Angeles. Jairo found work at a soft-drink factory, and held on to the job despite the factory's privatization. And Olga finally got her degree in agricultural administration, but after so much effort she is unable to use it. Despite everything, she has not stopped dreaming of the success of her hardware stand, or cooking up other schemes to insure her family's survival.

What did these "interesting times" mean for Olga and her family? Like tens of thousands of urban residents and over 100,000 peasant families, the family got a plot of land. They also got access to free health care, which although it deteriorated in the later years, may have been key to preventing Xochil and Yara from succumbing to deadly childhlood diseases. Materially, neither the Sandinista years nor, so far, Chamorro's term, has been easy on the family. Under both administrations, someone was always unemployed, and those with jobs had to stretch their dismal salaries to meet the whole family's Deeds.

Nelson, as a politically active youngster, might very well have met his death in a National Guard prison cell had the revolution not succeeded. To Olga, this freedom from fear for her son probably made the single greatest difference in her life. Fear continued, though, with the long years of war. To all but perhaps Nelson, the most ardent supporter of the revolution, this sacrifice was the most bitter. Like many Nicaraguans, the family could face a few years of war, but not an endless battle.

It is a singular accomplishment of those years that Olga, along with tens of thousands of poor Nicaraguans, earned a college degree, while many others finished high school. Some of those opportunities are closing as government aid to the universities is reduced, and fees for textbooks and matriculation are introduced in primary and secondary public schools.

Perhaps the most profound and lasting impact of the revolution is not to be found in the material realm. The revolution brought to Olga's family, and to many Nicaraguans, new opportunities to contribute to community and national life. These opportunities are changing, but not closing, with the Chamorro Administration. Ironically, the very lack of connection between grassroots movements and the government has spawned new possibilities for organizing, even while concrete achievements may be harder to attain. Nicaraguans have learned to speak out for their right to a decent life. They will not easily be quieted again.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa Haugaard is director of the Central American Historical Institute at Georgetown University, and the author of many articles on Nicaragua.

NOTES
1. This estimate of the economic effects of the Contra war is from the account of direct and indirect damages which the Nicaraguan government presented to the World Court, as updated through 1988. It thus represents a maximum, not minimum, estimate. Instituto Nacional de Estadisticas y Ceases, Nicaragua: Diez Años en Cifras (Managua: INEC, 1989).
2. For an account of human rights abuses under the Somoza regime, see Inter-American Comission on Human Rights, Organization of American States, Report on the Situation ofHuman Rights in Nicaragua (Washingtow OAS, 1978).
3. See Kosta Mathey, "An Appraisal of Sandinista Housing Policies," Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer 1990). Mathey points out that housing construction never kept pace with demand, but that the government's pro-tenant policies and lenient treatment of squatters provided solutions for many.
4. To understand the magnitude of the change in organizing, it is important to note that prior to 1979, the Nicaraguan populace was one of the least organized in Central America. For workforce organizing see Carlos Vilas, The Sandinista Revolution: National Liberation and Social Transformation, (New York: Monthly Review, 1986), p. 176, For farmworker organizing, see Richard Stahler-Sholk, "Organized Labor in Nicaragua" in Latin American Labor Organizations (Westport, CT.: Greenwood, 1987). For the development of tural organizations, see Ilya A. Luciak, "Democracy in the Nicaraguan Countryside: A Comparative Analysis of Sandinista Grassroots Movements," Larin American Perspectives, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer 1990), pp. 55-75.
5. Interview with Enrique Reynoso, August 4, 1988. Reynosa conducted case studies of the CDSs in 1985. For more on the internal dynamics of the CDSs, see Gary Ruchwarger, People in Power: Forging a Grassroots Democracy in Nicaragua (South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1987). For an evaluation of the CDSs, see Millie Thayer, "CDS: Revolution in the Barrio," in envio, Vol. 8, No. 98 (September 1989).
6. For a detailed analysis of the downward trend in wages, particularly after 1985, see Richard Stahler-Sholk, "Stabilization, Destabilization and the Popular Classes in Nicaragua, 1979-88." Latin American Research Review, Vol. 25, No. 3 (1990).
7. Interview with Francisca Centena, AMNLAE base leader, Barrio Boris Vega, Estelf, March, 1987. For analyses of the impact of the revolution on women, see, for example, Donna Vukelich, "Women in Nicaragua: The Revolution on Hold," envia, Vol. 10,No. 119(June 199 1); Jane Deighton, Rossana Horgley, Sarah Stewartaad Cathy Cain, Sweet Ramparts: Women in Revolutionary Nicaragua (Birmingham, UK: War on Want and Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, 1983); and Paola Wrez, "Economic Crisis and Women in Nicaragua," in Lourdes Beneria, ed., Economic Crisis, Persistent Poverty and Gender Inequality (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991).
8. This certainly did not mean that social and political hierarchy disappeared; indeed, it was reinforced in different ways by the hierarchical structure of the party. While the insurrection and the years of revolutionary government may have accelerated the pace of social change, however, the changes also were part of modernization, and reflective of trends affecting much of the rest of the world.
9. Interviewwithyoungfannerhills outside Camoapa,August, 1989.
10. For an analysis of post-election dynamics in Nicaragua, see George Vickers and Jack Spence, "After The Fall," World Policy Journal, Fall, 1992.

Tags: Nicaragua, Sandinistas, education, women, Violeta Chamorro


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