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Should '70s, '80s Nicaragua Matter to NYC Voters? Two Writers Make the Case

After the Sandinistas lost the the first democratic election in early 1990, which they were forced to hold because of international pressure and because they sought legitimacy for their regime (and never expected to lose), the world, Berman writes, learned about “mass graves, anguished peasants, furious artisans and workers,” all of whom suffered under the rule of the commandantes of the Sandinista Front (FSLN). After their election loss, they quickly robbed the public trough of all its valuables, taking property and money in the treasury to line their own pockets.

Berman notes that even after the truth was out, Bill de Blasio continued to give the FSLN his support, and even now offers only tepid criticisms of their misrule.

De Blasio has, he writes, “never arrived at a proper understanding of the tragedy there,” which makes Berman concerned "about what sort of mayor you might become.” He then proceeds to give a compelling and detailed account of just what he learned in Nicaragua. Months of spending time there forced Berman to give up his old enthusiasms and illusions, and to boldly tell the truth about the hidden Marxist-Leninist agenda of the Sandinistas.

Berman relates how the very areas in which peasants and Indians rebelled against the Somoza dictatorship quickly became the very areas where the populace moved to rebel against the Sandinistas. He writes particularly of that which De Blasio and the other Sandalistas of the day missed:

This was the goal of subjugating every last corner of Nicaraguan life to the dictates of the Sandinista Front, whose own political structure mandated obedience to the nine uniformed comandantes of the national directorate, whose political structure had been assembled, in turn, by Fidel Castro, their hero. These hierarchical commitments ended up wreaking a devastating effect on every last thing the Sandinistas ever did, including the best things.

Berman points out that the much heralded literacy campaign was meant to get the population to become indoctrinated. When Costa Rica offered free textbooks for the schools, the FSLN rejected them, and turned instead to Communist East Germany, which gave them books meant “to promote reverence for the Sandinista Front and a belief in Sandinista ideology.” What they got was “an indoctrination campaign,” one that was badly received, including in Masaya, where both Berman and De Blasio went during their time in Nicaragua.

As for the so-called Popular Church, Berman writes that it had little support among the people and was “a theology of obedience,” while the regular mainstream church “retained a genuine popularity.” The persecution of the church, he writes, “went down badly.” When the barrio of the poor staged a small insurrection, the dreaded minister of the Interior, Tomas Borge, “dispatched troops and tanks to the barrio.” The insurrection was crushed. Cooperatives set up by the peasants to sell their goods were destroyed, and replaced by “state agencies on the advice from the Soviet countries” that were, in addition, notoriously corrupt.

The result was that the poor whom the FSLN supposedly served had their crafts and trades destroyed, even while these same workers “were required to attend Sandinista rallies and chant slogans.” Secret police and block committees took down who came and who did not come, and he notes that those not attending were punished “with a loss of food rations.” The homes of those who did not openly support the Sandinistas were vandalized and painted with slogans, and protestors who dared to hold public rallies were attacked by the turbas, meaning “divine mobs,” organized goons sent in by the regime.

Berman ends by asking why so many well-meaning people backed the Sandinistas. How did they not notice what was really taking place in Nicaragua? How, he asks -- quoting the New York Times -- can one come away attributing to them “a human ability and practicality that was really inspirational?” His answer:

The foreign visitors believed sincerely in the superiority of their own ideas, they trembled with indignation at the policies of the Reagan Administration, and their beliefs and their indignation joined together like two cymbals to drown out the whispered anguish of the poor and the persecuted.

The foreign visitors never noticed that Sandinista claims to democratic socialism were a deception. They never recognized that authentic Sandinista doctrine was a leafy Central American variation on Cuban ideology, military uniforms and top-down obedience and all, which itself traced back to the ice floes of the Soviet tundra. And the visitors never appreciated that in towns like Masaya, a great many people ended up afraid of foreign visitors, afraid of the wealthy university-educated adventurers from abroad who, in the eyes of ordinary Nicaraguans, were agents of the Sandinista government, and thus no different from the Bulgarian, East German, Cuban, and Russian advisors.