July 13, 2004
Twenty-five years ago, the Sandinista revolution took power in Nicaragua. Just before dawn on July 17, 1979, Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza Debayle, long one of the most trusted U.S. allies in all of Latin America, slipped out of the country, accompanied by a few of his cronies, the remains of his father and brother and the bulk of Nicaragua's savings.
Throughout the 1980s in Nicaragua, July 17 was celebrated as "el dia de la alegria" -- the day of joy, a vastly understated term for the outpouring of elation felt when Somoza finally left.
Somoza had controlled the military, the country's political structure, its educational system and every key area of the economy. A succession of U.S. administrations had turned a blind eye to his flagrant abuse of power.
As he fled the country that July morning, Somoza left behind a country in ruins. More than 40,000 people had been killed during the insurrection (in a country of less than 4 million), the country's major cities had been bombed by Somoza's air force, agricultural production had ground to a halt in early 1979 and tens of thousands of people -- including many of Nicaragua's most educated -- had fled the country in fear.
Still, there was much to celebrate. The revolution quickly became a presence both palpable and symbolic in people's daily lives. Young students from poor barrios in Managua and Leon (accent "/" over the o) fanned out around the country, teaching peasants twice their age how to read and write. Children of domestic workers were studying medicine or agronomy, and Nicaragua's rich and complex cultural heritage was deemed worthy both of celebration and study.
The young people I met in Nicaragua in 1982 spoke eloquently about their revolution. They used the pronoun "we," and their hope for a future they owned seemed boundless.
The revolution followed a fairly modest path, working to bring a decent standard of living to the country's poor. But the Reagan administration would not abide it. The CIA financed, armed and trained the contras, and Reagan continued to fund them illegally after Congress prohibited it.
The contra forces waged a civil war that killed tens of thousands of civilians. By the end of the 1980s, Nicaragua was ravaged by war. The initial enthusiasm for the revolution was battered into exhaustion, and the economy was so damaged that it has yet to recover.
A fatigued population voted the Sandinistas out in early 1990, hoping desperately for peace. While peace of a sort did come to Nicaragua, it wasn't the steppingstone to the prosperous calm that so many had hoped for.
Like much of the world, Nicaragua today is up against the onslaught of neoliberal economic policies.
More than 80 percent of the country has fallen into poverty, and Nicaragua's single greatest export is labor -- the poorest head south to Costa Rica to work in the fields or as domestics, while those who can afford the trip try to make it to the United States.
Nicaragua's political system has turned its back on the needs of the poor, with a tiny group of Sandinistas hijacking the revolutionary legacy and carving out a political pact with the reigning Liberal Party, heirs to Somoza.
These days the true legacy of the revolution is to be found in those who describe themselves as Sandinistas del corazon (Sandinistas of the heart). These idealists participate in a women's movement, a budding environmental movement and a global justice movement against neoliberalism. They underscore that while living in the past is dangerous, forgetting it is perhaps even more so.
Donna Vukelich is a freelance writer in Madison, Wis., who spent 15 years in Nicaragua. She can be reached at email@example.com.