Nicaragua's unfinished revolution
Many of the Sandinista promises remain unfulfilled 30 years on.
Last Modified: 17 Jul 2009 15:21 GMT

Pink, not red, is now the official colour of Ortega's Sandinistas

On July 19, 1979, the Sandinista revolution removed what many considered to be one of Latin America's most brutal dictatorships.

Thirty years later, and with the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega once again in power, Lucia Newman visited Nicaragua and found that many of the revolution's promises have remained unfulfilled.

Nicaragua is preparing to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Sandinista revolution, which overthrew one of Central America's most corrupt and brutal regimes with the pledge of democracy and freedom, and propelled Ortega to international recognition.

Today, it is hard to walk round the streets of Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, without being greeted by his beaming visage; he has been an integral part of the country's political scene for the past three decades.

But his ubiquitous image on anniversary posters is at odds with a president who has shied away from public appearances and interviews since being sworn in for a second stint as president in January 2007.

Changing colours

His critics say he has now actually turned his back on many of the socialist promises made during the revolution.

They also say that the colour pink, which adorns the billboards, and has replaced the traditional Sandinista red and black, is indicative of a man who is prepared to change his political colours to achieve his own ends.

Monica Baltodano, a dissident Sandinista member of parliament, says Ortega is implementing the same policies as previous conservative governments.

Monica Baltonado says Ortega is no different from the conservatives

"The criticism from those of us on the left is that despite Ortega's anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist rhetoric, his administration is absolutely free market," she said.

Baltodano was a Sandinista commander in 1979, when revolutionary forces, named after the legendary Nicaraguan rebel Augusto Cesar Sandino, removed the dictatorship of General Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

US supported Somoza

The dynastic Somoza regime had received tacit support from successive US governments which had long influenced events in what was effectively a "banana republic".

Somoza and his father, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, became infamous for accumulating vast personal wealth at the expense of peasants, and for their cruelty against anyone pushing for change.

The revolution was led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a broad-based coalition of students, intellectuals and peasants headed by nine military commanders, including Ortega who would later emerge as the first among equals.

Despite the deaths of more than 30,000 Nicaraguans, the Sandinista victory was hailed throughout the country and beyond. Baltodano says the aims were ambitious and far-reaching.

"Our dream was not just to remove Somoza as a dictator but also to initiate a new phase that would resolve the extreme poverty in our country," she says.

"We wanted access to education, to land and to material benefits from which the majority of Nicaraguans were and continue to be excluded."

US opposition

The Sandinista revolution in Central America was an unprecedented socialist experiment
The Sandinistas installed a so-called government of national reconstruction encompassing moderates from the business community, intellectuals and both conservative and Marxists politicians.

It was a revolutionary experiment without precedent in Central America.

The new government promised political pluralism and a mixed economy, which included initiatives such as a widely-praised literacy campaign that reduced the illiteracy rate from 60 per cent to just 13 per cent.

But Nicaragua's increasingly close alignment to communist Cuba and its new policies unnerved the US who suspected the Sandinistas were fomenting a Marxist rebellion in neighbouring El Salvador.

In 1981, the CIA launched overt and covert operations to finance a counter-revolutionary army called the Contras, which comprised the remnants of Somoza's national guard.

The ensuing decade of civil conflict bitterly divided the country and left another 30,000 people dead.

It ended in 1990 with the introduction of multi-party elections. At the polls, war-weary Nicaraguans rejected the Sandinistas and Ortega, by then president, in favour of a broad-based conservative coalition.

Accepting defeat

Ortega found his defeat hard to take but the fact he did so was perhaps the greatest of his achievements, according to a fellow revolutionary and his vice-president at the time.

"The day when the Sandinista front recognised we had lost the elections and that Violeta Chamarro had won the elections, it was a great day for democracy in Nicaragua," Sergio Ramirez, Ortega's former vice-president, said.

But Ramirez eventually distanced himself from Ortega and in the 1990s founded a breakaway party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement.

"We split because I was in favour of democratic procedures and Daniel believed that we must recuperate power at any price, even against the constitution," said Ramirez, who is now a vocal critic of Ortega's policies.

"The Sandinista Front was based on ethical principles and now ethics and moral principles have completely disappeared."

The deal maker

Literacy rates, which soared under the Sandinistas, fell once they lost power

Ortega's critics also say he has compromised many of his principles by striking deals with former opponents in order to secure power.

In 1997, Ortega used his power in congress to strike deals with the ruling party to reform the constitution and share control of key institutions, including the judiciary and the electoral council.

The president at the time was Arnoldo Aleman, who after leaving office was sentenced to 20 years in prison for fraud involving millions of dollars worth of state funds.

Ortega used his influence to get him acquitted and Aleman is today the leader of the opposition.

"In exchange Ortega obtained an electoral law that would allow him to win an election with just 35 per cent of the vote, something unprecedented in Latin America," says Fernando Chamorro, a former Sandinista newspaper editor.

Many also believe that Nicaragua's strict anti-abortion legislation was a concession Ortega made to placate the influential Catholic church and its head in the country Cardinal Obando y Bravo, once a fierce vocal critic of the Sandinistas during their first administration.

But Eden Pastora, a former Sandinista commander, who became disillusioned with the revolution and switched loyalties to the Contras in the 1980s, has now come to the rescue of the Nicaraguan president calling Ortega a true democrat.

"To take power, you have to make deals with Satan," he said.

"It's worse to go to war, to kill people; but what is more moral? To make a deal or kill? That's politics ... it is justified if you use power correctly. Politics isn't clean - it's not made by angels or saints," Pastora added. 

Back in power

After two attempts at re-election failed, Ortega returned to power in 2007, when he won only 36 per cent of the vote with former Contra leader, Jaime Morales Carazo, running as his vice-president.

Ortega vowed once more to uphold the original pledges of the Sandinistas. He still plays the revolutionary, aligning himself closely with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and with the communist government in Cuba.

Venezuelan generosity with oil has meant sufficient electricity is being generated to avoid lengthy blackouts, roads are being paved in rural areas and schemes have been re-launched to tackle illiteracy rates that soared after the Sandinistas first term in office ended.

However, Nicaragua remains the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere, with half the population living in acute poverty and an estimated one in three children suffering from malnutrition.

Despite many of the trappings of capitalism such as casinos, large multi-national companies and American fast-food chains, Managua still bears the scars of a devastating earthquake in 1972 and much of the city has yet to be rebuilt.

Successive conservative governments in the past two decades have been unable to alleviate the plight of millions of poor Nicaraguans.

Re-election worry

Surveys show public opinion is against moves to allow successive presidential terms

Ortega's critics charge that he is hanging on to power at any price.

They accuse him of using his control of the electoral council and the judiciary to steal at least 40 mayoral offices in last December's municipal elections.

This prompted the US and EU to suspend more than $100 million in aid.

Now his opponents say he is attempting to alter the constitution to allow unlimited consecutive presidential terms.

A similar move recently led to a coup in neighbouring Honduras.

A recent survey suggested that 60 per cent of Nicaraguans are opposed to such a proposition and Aleman, who now leads the main opposition party in congress, has said he would not strike a deal with Ortega to allow the move.

In a rare interviews he has given since returning to power, Ortega told Al Jazeera's David Frost that he "would run again for president" were the opportunity to arise.

Danilo Aquirre, the news director for El Nuevo Diario newspaper, says his son fought and died during the Sandinista uprising 30 years ago to prevent leaders from hanging on to power.

"Nicaragua shed torrents of blood to stop re-elections," he says. "I have seen people die on the streets saying 'no' to re-election, no to dynastic succession. That's why we fought Somoza. Here re-election has only brought us misery."

Whether Ortega pushes ahead with electoral reform remains to be seen.

But the controversy created by such a possibility is a reminder that old wounds are still felt in Nicaragua and that the revolution promised by the Sandinistas remains unfulfilled.

Lucia Newman's special programme, An Unfinished Revolution, can be seen from Friday, July 17 at the following times GMT: Friday 1900; Saturday 0000, 0600 and 1400.

Al Jazeera
Topics in this article
Featured on Al Jazeera
'Justice for All' demonstrations swell across the US over the deaths of African Americans in police encounters.
Six former Guantanamo detainees are now free in Uruguay with some hailing the decision to grant them asylum.
Disproportionately high number of Aboriginal people in prison highlights inequality and marginalisation, critics say.
Nearly half of Canadians have suffered inappropriate advances on the job - and the political arena is no exception.
Women's rights activists are demanding change after Hanna Lalango, 16, was gang-raped on a bus and left for dead.
Buried in Sweden's northern forest, Sorsele has welcomed many unaccompanied kids who help stabilise a town exodus.
A look at the changing face of North Korea, three years after the death of 'Dear Leader'.
While some fear a Muslim backlash after café killings, solidarity instead appears to be the order of the day.
Victims spared by the deadly disease are reporting blindness and other unexpected post-Ebola health issues.