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Lessons from the experience of the Sandinista Revolution

News from Nicaragua | Thursday, 23 June 2016 |

Come and see this! There's a big flaw in the revolution

Come and see this! There's a big flaw in the revolution

In the 1980s, Nicaragua was a major focus of global geopolitics; a guerrilla army in an impoverished Central American country had succeeded in defeating one of the most brutal US-backed dictatorships in Latin America.

With its socialist programme of political pluralism, mixed economy and social justice, and its slogan "Between Christianity and Socialism there is no contradiction," the Sandinista Revolution encapsulated the ideals of many on the left from around the world. These ideals were perceived by the Reagan administration as a major threat that they set about destroying through military, political, and economic means.

After the electoral defeat in 1990, the Sandinistas handed over power to a coalition government backed and financed by the US. A broad consultation process followed to analyse not only the external factors but also internal errors that contributed to the defeat.

This analysis informed the Sandinista government programme when they returned to power in 2007 in the context of a much strengthened Latin America. One of the key lessons has been the critical importance of macroeconomic stability to eradicating hunger and poverty.

The following is a summary of an article published by the Tortillaconsal (TCS) collective  outlining what the Sandinistas have learnt from their mistakes ‘to share with our sisters and brothers in Venezuela and elsewhere.’

 “If we had known then, what we know now, it may have been possible to act more wisely to avoid the electoral defeat of 1990.”

•             Overestimating levels of support. As TCS points out “It is important not to confuse wishful thinking with the real correlation of forces”. In 1979, when the Sandinistas came to power, Nicaraguans came to believe that they were much stronger than they actually were.  Although the ousting of the Somoza dictatorship had overwhelming popular support across all sectors of society, this support by no means extended to supporting a revolutionary project of radical transformation. Another example is hegemony apparently expressed through massive political rallies which can be very deceptive, even illusory, leading to sudden, ill-considered, fundamentally flawed decisions.

•             Changing values is a prolonged process that requires a lot of political sensitivity to avoid alienating supporters or potential supporters. As the TCS article points out ‘ The instant our deeds seem to confirm the deepest fears of particular  groups (in relation to religion, to private property, to social and economic freedoms in general), those groups quickly end up embracing apparently plausible opposition political projects, no matter how reactionary those projects may turn out to be.

•             Implementing a land reform programme that involved distributing land to rural workers on condition they worked it collectively.  The counter-revolutionary army (the contras), armed, trained and funded by the US, was initially made up of Somoza's National Guard, who fled over the border to Honduras after the Sandinistas took power. However, mistakes of the Sandinista government meant that the contras also built a substantial base among disillusioned rural families. This resulted partly from a government decision to distribute land to rural workers under the agrarian reform programme on condition they worked it collectively. This was a costly mistake because most rural workers wanted to own the land individually and only a minority of the groups receiving land had fought collectively to occupy it.

•             It is counterproductive to label as speculators and smugglers broad sections of the popular classes who are only trying to defend the wellbeing of their families. For example, the worst speculators were the traders in Managua's huge Mercado Oriental, but they were also the women who sacrificed most sons in defence of Nicaragua. In the countryside, the  Sandinistas sold subsidised boots, machetes, nails, salt and kerosene to the campesino/as,  who the next day went over the border to Honduras  to re-sell them to the contras in exchange for  other things they needed. The government stopped just in time applying the policy of treating these ordinary people as counter-revolutionaries. Had they not, then the 1990 electoral defeat would have been much worse.

•             Actions that are perceived as strategic triumphs by our movements and governments are not necessarily the same as substantive changes in the real correlation of forces, or actions the general population truly perceives as victories. For example, in 1988, in order to face a situation of rampant inflation similar to the one Venezuela is facing today, the Sandinista government carried out Operation Berta, converting in 24 hours all the country's notes and coins into what was in effect a new currency. Unfortunately this did not stop inflation.

•             The Sandinista experience confirmed that the Law of Labour Value exists and unless production costs are respected, serious imbalances are bound to erode the credibility of any revolutionary project. State enterprises in the form basic service utilities or as primary sources of income are important assets so long as they ensure an economic advantage or are strategically important and necessary. But apart from that, maintaining inefficient production enterprises above average production costs damaged Nicaragua's revolutionary government programme.

•             A better approach to socialisation of the economy has been to promote it as a broad process through which freely associated direct producers take control over the economy and over society in general. That can happen through self- or co-managed enterprises, co-ops and co-op federations, through federations of consumers and so on. The role of government is crucial in terms of ensuring progressive taxation systems and policy or through official promotion of structures of popular and communal power. Dialogue and consensus are critical.

A version of the article is available on