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R O B E RT J . S I E R A K O W S K I

S a n d i n i s ta s A moral history

University of Notre Dame Press Notre Dame, Indiana

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Copyright © 2019 by the University of Notre Dame Notre Dame, Indiana 46556 undpress.nd.edu All Rights Reserved Published in the United States of America

∞ This book is printed on acid-free paper.

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contents

List of Illustrations ix Acknowledgments xi Abbreviations xv Introduction 1 O n e State of Disorder: Vice, Corruption, and the Somoza Dictatorship

23

t wo

55

Burning Down the Brothels: Moral Regeneration and the Emergence of Sandinismo, 1956–1970

t h r e e Persecuting the Living Christ: Guerrillas, Catholics, and Repression, 1968–1976

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93

f o u r “They Planted Corn and Harvested Guardias”: Somoza’s National Guard and Secret Police at the Grassroots

128

five

“A Crime to Be Young”: Families in Insurrection, September 1976–September 1978

161

six

“How Costly Is Freedom!”: Massacres, Community, 194 and Sacrifice, October 1978–July 1979

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viii Contents

E p i l o g u e   Whither the Revolution? Nicaragua and the Sandinistas since 1979

223

Notes 240 Bibliography 295 Index 311

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Introduction My government guarantees order, peace, and social stability, despite the fact that outside forces promote disorder by at­ tacking the tranquility and well-being of the Nicaraguan people. —Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, July 1979

One morning in early March 1979, an excited report from Comandante Francisco Rivera crackled over the guerrillas’ clandestine transmitter, Radio Sandino. Rivera, the top rebel commander in Nicaragua’s rural north, detailed numerous skirmishes against the armed forces of the dictatorship of Gen. Anastasio Somoza, and also a recent raid his young troops had carried out in the city of Estelí. “Various brothels owned by Somocista elements in league with military officers of the National Guard were burned down,” he explained. He emphasized that the destruction of this property was “yet another sign of our willing­ ness to eradicate prostitution from our country once and for all.”1 At age twenty-five, Rivera was already an experienced leader in the San­ dinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, FSLN), a leftist armed group vying to overthrow the Somo­ zas, whose family had ruled the country for more than four decades. The regime’s loyal military and police force, the National Guard (Guar­ dia Nacional, GN), stood accused of committing numerous atrocities 1

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2  Sandinistas

against the civilian population in their efforts to defeat the insurgency. As the repression expanded, membership in the Sandinistas ballooned, and guerrilla encampments overflowed with scrappily armed youths clad in olive green fatigues eager to fight back. After nearly a decade and a half of clandestine struggle against the Somozas, the FSLN fi­ nally began to threaten the regime’s survival. Rather than marginal-to-guerrilla efforts, the destruction of these government-backed businesses fulfilled a decade-long pledge to their Catholic civilian base of support, which saw such locales as destructive to family stability. Elsewhere in the rural north over the coming weeks, the Sandinistas declared “liberated zones” free from regime control where they similarly “set about burning down centers of vice,” such as cantinas, brothels, and gambling joints.2 The guerrillas’ most recent manifesto proudly stated that not only would their victory bring an end to the dictatorship and expand social rights for the poor, but also that “organized crime will disappear forever: sex trafficking, prostitution, dice tables, ‘illegal’ gaming, the red-light districts, and all those busi­ nesses controlled by the military and the accomplices of Somocismo . . . will be swept away by the Frente Sandinista.”3 Despite legal proscrip­ tion, a vast network of vice and social corruption had long been fos­ tered by the government and the National Guard through a system of kickbacks and impunity. The rebel sabotage reported by Francisco Ri­ vera sought to reduce to ashes not only their physical structures but also the immoral and unjust system that they believed these establish­ ments embodied. As the FSLN evolved over the previous decade and a half, the re­ gional population had pressed their concerns about morality and family breakdown to the heart of the revolutionary agenda. Conservative-­ sounding calls to end social and political corruption and impose “law and order” drew the population of the rural north to the Sandinista movement, which proved undogmatic and willing to take up issues often spurned by the Left. Opposition activists argued that the Somoza dictatorship encouraged family breakdown and dysfunctional male ­sociability through its permissive attitude towards criminality. Such efforts, aided by Catholic liberation theology, crystalized in a mass protest movement of working-class and campesino families that called for an end to social injustice. However, it was the GN’s chaotic repres­

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Introduction 3

sion and atrocities that exposed the utter lawlessness and moral de­ pravity of the regime and drove thousands of families into the arms of the Sandinistas. Through the process of collective defense, the revolu­ tionaries constructed their own practical visions of insurgent morality, incorporating solidarity, egalitarianism, and sacrifice. In the eyes of the population, Somoza’s claim in the epigraph above was exactly inverted: from their stance, his regime threatened “the tranquility and well-being of the Nicaraguan people,” while an insurgent victory promised “order, peace and, social stability.” After months of open civil war, the Sandinistas captured Managua on July 19, 1979, sending the remnants of the GN scrambling and ini­ tiating a decade of change that would catapult this small country to the frontlines of the global Cold War. The Sandinistas became the only guerrilla organization in all of Latin America to successfully follow in the footsteps of the Cuban Revolution, which had inspired a genera­ tion across the hemisphere. Sandinistas: A Moral History offers a re­ interpretation of the origins of the Nicaraguan revolution from the perspective of popular mobilization and the personal experiences of the countless women and men who helped construct its ideals. Drawing on a wealth of previously untapped archival and oral sources, I show that the armed FSLN guerrillas formed only the tip of the iceberg of a mass movement for social and cultural change that developed in direct reac­ tion to the regime’s seedier aspects. Centering the contributions of these local actors—from artisan trade unionists and Catholic peasants to high school students and middle-class housewives—suggests the limited utility of the 1980s debate over whether the Nicaraguan revo­ lution was primarily nationalist or communist in nature. Although it is confounding to the classic stereotype of a left-wing insurgency, the destruction of “centers of vice” and popular demands for law and order indicate how revolutionary aims went beyond demands for mere po­ litical or even social change, aiming instead for a deeper moral renewal. Armed insurgency emerged out of a broader—yet less visible—history of consciousness-raising and popular protest through which working-­ class and rural Nicaraguans stretched the definition of Sandinismo to new limits by incorporating their own aspirations for personal and so­ cial transformation. The Sandinistas’ singular success, I argue, was due to their distinctive radical politics that married a traditional, moralizing

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4  Sandinistas

conservative discourse of family breakdown and vice with a revolu­ tionary critique of social inequality, political corruption, and state ­violence.

A View from the Revolutionary Heartland

To uncover the historical trajectory of the Sandinista Revolution, this book focuses on the Segovias, considered the country’s most quintes­ sentially “revolutionary” zone and the veritable heartland of the Sand­ inista movement. According to Michael Schroeder, the Segovias are “a rugged, mountainous frontier region with a bewilderingly complex physical and human geography,” with a “uniquely violent” place in Nicaraguan history. This borderland region near Honduras had wit­ nessed cycles of armed gangs and political violence dating back to the civil wars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between Conservatives and Liberals.4 Drawing on these traditions, a rebel army led by Augusto César Sandino rose up in the Segovias against the U.S. military occupation of Nicaragua during the 1920s and 30s. The peas­ ant guerrillas of his Army in Defense of the National Sovereignty of Nicaragua (Ejército Defensor de la Soberanía Nacional de Nicaragua, EDSN) carried out a nearly seven-year-long “David and Goliath” war against one of the most powerful countries in the world and their local clients. The U.S. marines responded with aerial bombings and other atrocities throughout the mountainous north, but they were never able to defeat the nationalist rebels. Decades later, during the 1960s and 70s, the Segovias once again served as a primary locus of action for the young revolutionaries who revived Sandino’s name and took up the red-and-black flag of his rebel army. The region’s major urban center, Estelí, gained international fame for being “three times heroic” (tres veces heroica), with insurgents receiving widespread civilian support during three urban insurrections against the dictatorship in 1978 and 1979. In explaining the reasons for such heightened participation in the upheaval, FSLN leader Humberto Ortega claimed, “Ever since the time of Sandino, Estelí was the scene of battles. . . . As such, there was a tradition of struggle.”5 Political sci­ entist Timothy Wickham-Crowley similarly postulated a “preexisting rebellious culture” in northern Nicaragua that permitted the Sandinis­

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Introduction 5

tas to thrive in the very areas where Sandino’s EDSN had once been active.6 Many academic observers have thought likewise, erroneously casting the FSLN guerrillas of the 1960s as emerging almost seamlessly from Sandino’s nationalist struggle of the 1920s and 30s. As a hotbed of rebellion that bridged these two eras, the Segovias became a lynch­ pin in official Sandinista discourse and the revolutionaries’ appeals to historical legitimacy. This account, I show, is largely FSLN political mythology that ­homogenizes two sharply divergent historical moments. Rather than the isolated borderland of the years of U.S. occupation, the Segovias region underwent a profound economic transformation during the ­decades of Somoza rule, with flourishing exports of agricultural goods, such as coffee, beef, and tobacco. The construction the Pan-American Highway and rapid urbanization transformed the landscape, while commercial agriculture increasingly replaced subsistence farming. However, despite superficial signs of modernization, this growth fos­ tered galloping social inequality between an increasingly opulent elite and the impoverished peasants and townspeople, who had limited ac­ cess to education, health care, or decent wages. Much of the new wealth produced found its way directly into the pockets of the Somoza family and their large landowner allies at the regional level. Even with grow­ ing social tensions, the emergence of an armed insurgency with signifi­ cant civilian backing was never preordained. Contrary to the romantic Sandinista narrative, the Segovias, in fact, developed a solid reputation as a dependable base of support for the Somoza regime. This was true of the city of Estelí and many towns and villages that had once sup­ ported Sandino.7 In fact, many of the region’s peasants (campesinos)— desperately poor and often indigenous—were the prime recruitment pool for the National Guard for almost half a century. In light of its centrality to both sides of the conflict, the Segovias provide the perfect locale for a close historical investigation of the roots of the revolution and the political violence of the 1960s and 70s. The Segovias region consists of the present-day departments (provinces) of Estelí, Madriz, Nueva Segovia, Matagalpa, and Jinotega. However, in this book I mostly focus on the first two departments, given the fasci­ nating contrast that they provide. Though contiguous, neighboring provinces, Estelí and Madriz experienced strikingly divergent trajecto­ ries over the decades of Somoza rule. Estelí developed into a guerrilla

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6  Sandinistas

stronghold deeply identified with the FSLN, but poverty-stricken Madriz and its capital, Somoto, remained a bastion of Somocismo and a prime recruiting ground for the GN until the dictatorship’s final days. “Madriz liberal, el pueblo más leal”—“Liberal Madriz, the most loyal people,” went a popular saying. Where standard explanations fail to account for these contradic­ tory developments, I demonstrate that the previous history of guerilla warfare did not spontaneously draw Nicaraguans to the red-and-black banner of the FSLN. Rather than the “inevitable” resurrection of Au­ gusto César Sandino’s anti-imperialism, the key to the rebels’ subse­ quent success was the manner in which they framed their struggle as an effort to extirpate vice, violence, corruption, and glaring inequality from everyday life. The Sandinistas, driven by grassroots protest move­

Map.1.1.  Map of the Republic of Nicaragua, with political divisions during the Somoza period. Departments of Estelí and Madriz shaded.

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Introduction 7

Map 1.2.  Map of the departments of Estelí and Madriz during the Somoza period.

ments, projected themselves as answering family breakdown and social disorder with moral regeneration. They offered a durable critique of the Somozas’ cascading web of impunity, which had enmeshed the re­ gime within the fabric of Nicaragua’s patriarchal society from wealthy landowning elite families down to the National Guard and other grass­ roots agents. In response to this defiance, the government met sus­ pected FSLN militants and those civilians accused of supporting the rebels with ever-increasing violence. Repression, however, only en­ hanced the moral critique of the Somoza regime, further invigorating calls for wholesale social renewal. Rather than a destabilizing force, the insurgency appeared to offer the restoration of order and justice in the face of chaotic state terror. The FSLN achieved their aim in 1979, precisely by bringing an end to the GN attacks unleashed against the civilian population and by promising an end to the everyday, interper­ sonal violence long present in Nicaraguan society.

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8  Sandinistas

A State of Disorder: The Somoza Regime through a New Lens

Conventional accounts cast the Somoza government as a brutal regime that “maintained law and order through control of the National Guard, a well-trained force thanks to the occupation of the United States Ma­ rines earlier in the twentieth century.”8 However, I contend, rather than the imposition of “law and order,” the longevity of the Somoza re­ gime was due precisely to its willingness to countenance criminal dis­ order. In this way, the Nicaraguan government differed greatly from the brutally efficient 1970s military dictatorships of South America. Some scholars have insisted that unlike these institutional and ideo­ logically oriented military dictatorships, the Somozas’ “sultanistic” and personalistic regime remained isolated from society and, thus, struc­ turally prone to popular upheaval.9 Historians Jeffrey Gould, Victo­ ria González-­Rivera, and Knut Walter have definitively refuted the claim that the Somozas ruled solely through political repression. In their work, they demonstrate how the Somozas at strategic moments mobilized working-class support via clientelism and populist appeals to campesinos, organized labor, and women, while negotiating power-­ sharing pacts with wealthy political adversaries in the private sector.10 Despite these important revisionist accounts, however, we still lack a clear understanding of the local dynamics that allowed the dictatorship to perpetuate itself in power for so many decades. Like the legendary symbol of Sandino, the Somoza dictatorship (1936–79) itself also dated back to the period of US military occupation of the 1920s and 30s. Following the 1927 invasion of the country—the third intervention since 1909—the U.S. government organized and armed a new military and police force, the National Guard of Nicara­ gua. They later handpicked a relatively obscure military officer, Gen. Anastasio Somoza García, to serve as the first Nicaraguan commander of this constabulary force. With the U.S. withdrawal in 1933, Sandino negotiated a provisional peace treaty with the Nicaraguan government. In an act of betrayal, Somoza had the unarmed rebel leader treacher­ ously assassinated the following year. With his major challenger for na­ tional power eliminated, he soon carried out a coup against the elected president and began ruling as the country’s strongman in 1936. After

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Introduction 9

two decades of personal dictatorial rule, Somoza himself was assassi­ nated in 1956 by a young poet in the city of León. Following his mur­ der, Somoza García was succeeded in power by two of his sons, Luis and Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Throughout the long decades of Somocista family rule, govern­ ment policies overwhelmingly benefited large landowners with access to state resources, many of whom came to serve as caciques (political chieftains) at the regional level. These landowning families benefited at the expense of the peasant families whose land they dispossessed and whose wages were kept down with the aid of state repression. In par­ allel, the Somozas constructed a loyal popular base among the poor by offering social mobility and impunity to its military and its civilian agents to engage in widespread small-scale illegal activities. In this way, the GN—the very institution responsible for policing—fostered an en­ tire underground “amoral economy” based on male sociability, vice, and criminality, including prostitution, gambling, and alcohol sales. These illegal practices helped link middling local agents, many of whom owned bars (those I call cantina caciques), to the Somoza regime and the GN. Though consumers were all male, a significant number of women loyal to the regime also participated the trade at the commu­ nity level. When the time came for one of the regime’s sham elections, this web of local operatives publicly dished out cash, food, and copious hard liquor to campesino and working-class Nicaraguans, who duly cast their vote for Somoza. The regime could also rely on the security forces to repress any po­ litical threat. Historians have often analyzed the National Guard in its structural role as a ballast for the Somoza family and a proxy for U.S. interests in Central America.11 My work moves beyond previous ap­ proaches by closely examining for the first time the role played by average soldiers, many of them recruited from among the impoverished indigenous peasantry of the Segovias. Ironically, in search of social ­mobility, the country’s poorest peasants came to fight, kill, and die in defense of the Somozas and other elite families that dominated the gov­ ernment. By considering the machista internal culture of the National Guard, which gave free reign to abusive masculine behavior, we gain great insight into both the nature of the regime and the widespread backlash it provoked.12

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10  Sandinistas

Far from “order, peace, and social stability” (as Somoza put it), I show, the GN fostered only a veneer of stability, while chaotic disorder increasingly defined much of everyday life. During the years of So­ moza rule—and well before the rise of guerrilla warfare—the nation was one of the most violent in the world. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, for example, the country’s homicide rate was often only surpassed by Colombia and Mexico. Between 1964 and 1967 (at which point the Somoza regime stopped providing data to the United Na­ tions), Nicaragua took the lead with the world’s highest homicide rate.13 This disastrous rise in crime and murder was recognized even by the dictatorship’s primary international sponsor. A U.S. embassy employee wrote in 1967 that the GN was “no good at all as policemen. Law and order is non-existent in Nicaragua . . . it is officially recommended that one carry a gun if one go[es] out of the city of Managua.”14 U.S. State Department experts three years later continued to sound the alarm re­ garding rising levels of violence: “Murder and aggravated assault ap­ pear to be the major criminal threat in all parts of the country. . . . There has been an increase in geometric proportions of common crime of an increasingly brutal character. . . . A very large proportion of the popu­ lation regularly go armed.”15 Much of the violence of the Somoza years was not political in es­ sence but instead social and interpersonal. Many homicides were the product of conflicts between men of all ages armed with machetes and pistols in rural areas, particularly in quarrels over family feuds, women, plots of land, and cattle. Widespread access to aguardiente or guaro (cane alcohol) at local cantinas, political rallies, polling stations, and ­religious festivals only added further fuel to the fire. The government kept no official statistics, but domestic violence, sexual abuse, and rape were also widespread and correlated with popular perceptions of family breakdown. Alcohol and quotidian violence had long been sa­ lient features of the country’s social landscape, but under Somoza they came to play a central role in the regime’s operations on the level of cities, towns, and villages. Partly as a result of the official encourage­ ment of both vice and male sociability, Nicaragua in the late 1960s had the highest rates of hard-liquor consumption (three times as much as El Salvador or Guatemala) and alcoholism in all of Central America.16 The atmosphere fostered during these years would also provide the context for the grassroots movements for social and moral regeneration that later coalesced around the FSLN.

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Profile for Notre Dame Press

Excerpt of "Sandinistas"  

Robert J. Sierakowski's "Sandinistas" offers a bold new perspective on the liberation movement that brought the Sandinista National Liberati...

Excerpt of "Sandinistas"  

Robert J. Sierakowski's "Sandinistas" offers a bold new perspective on the liberation movement that brought the Sandinista National Liberati...

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