The stunning election victory by Violeta Chamorro and her U.S. backed UNO party over the ruling Sandinistas in Nicaragua has created a crisis of conscience for the American political and religious left.
Few have appreciated how central is the fate of the Sandinistas to the activist community in the United States. A generation weaned on the “lessons of Vietnam” invested its emotional and spiritual hopes in the Sandinista revolution, demonized U.S. involvement as imperialist, and called opposition to the Sandinistas counter-revolutionary (hence the name “contra”). The left fully expected the “preferential option for the poor” to be Daniel Ortega and not Violeta Chamorro, socialism and not free enterprise, liberation theology and not mainline Catholicism.
For the past year or so, American leftists—many of them located in the universities, the churches, and the media—have watched with a vague sense of disquiet the rapidly disintegrating Soviet empire. All their remarks about the necessity of U.S. disarmament to save the human race have taken on a quaint, slightly ridiculous tone, and the political assumptions behind the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter on nuclear weapons have faded away, as Ronald Reagan said they would.
Yet not for a long time have Western political and religious liberals enjoyed a genuine romance with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Indeed, American genuflection toward these powers seems to have been motivated mostly by a conviction of Soviet invincibility, of the “forces of history” running against us, in short, by fear. It was an embarrassment, but also a relief, to have these apocalyptic fears invalidated.
Nicaragua was different. Many Americans who might sulkily concede that the implosion of the Soviet empire was the result of American fortitude nonetheless firmly believed that Nicaragua would vindicate a decade of enthusiasm for the Sandinistas and opposition to U.S. funding for the contras. Each year, 10,000 American visitors, many of them from church groups led by Witness for Peace, toured Nicaragua and narrated tales of happy revolutionary peasants. Human rights groups such as the Washington Office on Central America stressed the barbarism of the contras and the humanitarianism of the Sandinistas. The American media portrayed the futility of U.S. support for the wicked and unpopular contras and warned of Vietnam-style escalation, loss of life, and increasing anti-Americanism.
Religious publications like the National Catholic Reporter identified the voices of the pro-Sandinista “base communities” with those of the people and warned that Cardinal Obando y Bravo’s orthodoxy and contra sympathies were alienating the campesinos from the Church. The classic of this genre was Penny Lernoux’s Cry of the People, which presented the causes of socialism and liberation theology as synonymous with those of the Latin American poor.
Shortly before the election, an ABC/Washington Post survey put the Sandinistas ahead by a huge 16-point margin. The Post printed several features stressing the essential fairness of the election and explaining how the Bush administration would have to learn to live with a Sandinista victory. Peter Jennings on ABC announced that the imminent Ortega triumph represented “the failure of U.S. policy.” Many foreign visitors—the so-called internationalistas—attended Sandinista rallies and joined in the cheering.
The rationale for these expectations was that the Sandinistas, despite regrettable blunders mostly caused by U.S. belligerence, nevertheless represented authentic nationalism—they were the true heirs of the revolutionary hero Sandino. Further, they had taken land away from oligarchs and given it to the people. They had boosted literacy and health care. Finally, as The Nation observed, there was the charisma of Daniel Ortega himself, whose simple dress and poetic cadence revealed him as the true peasant troubadour. Contrast this with Violeta Chamorro’s underfunded, disorganized, and U.S.-tainted opposition, and it is obvious, The Nation concluded, that “the government is almost sure to be elected.”
Even more confident were Ralph Fine of Hemisphere Initiatives, a pro-Sandinista group, and Kenneth Sharpe, a pro-Sandinista professor at Swarthmore College, who warned a few days before the election in the New York Times that the “sour grapes brigade” was lining up to “discredit in advance an imminent Sandinista victory.” The Sandinistas represented “nationalism, autonomy, and pride” while “the opposition has been badly hurt by widely perceived connections to the rich, the contras, and the U.S.” Consequently, “right-wing critics will never accept the possibility that the Sandinistas can win a free and fair election. The hope remains, however, that policy makers will keep an open mind and base future policies on reality, not sour grapes.”
Then the Nicaraguan voters had a chance to speak. The result, a 55 to 41 percent rout for Chamorro, came as a thunderbolt. (Had the ten percent of Nicaraguans who had fled the country been allowed to cast absentee ballots, Chamorro’s total would probably have been over 60 percent.) Even more upsetting than the lopsided spread—a far sounder trashing than Bush administered to Dukakis in 1988 —was the fact that the areas of the country in which the contras roamed went overwhelmingly for UNO. The absolute worst discovery was that the poorest regions of Nicaragua voted against the Sandinistas. This, as Mark Anthony might say, was the “most unkindest cut of all.”
First, these outcomes seemed to show that Chamorro, who did not hide her American sympathies and was portrayed throughout the campaign as a Yankee dupe, was not hurt by her U.S. association. (After the Panamanian jubilation that greeted the American rescue of Panama, the automatic assumption of Latino anti-Americanism was no longer credible anyway.) Indeed, the only people Nicaraguan voters seemed to distrust were American journalists and pollsters, who were viewed as sympathetic to the Sandinistas.
Second, the geographic spread of the election results seemed to solve the puzzle of how some 15,000-20,000 contras managed to hide out for so many years without detection: they were supported and protected by peasants and natives, who saw them as fighting to recover the promises of the original revolution against Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Just as public sentiment turned harshly against Somoza on account of his brutal dictatorship, so also the Sandinistas lost popular support when they sent spies into every neighborhood, in an Eastern European and Cuban fashion.
Third, and most significant, the election results appeared to destroy the entire premise that the interests of the poor are identical with communist and socialist revolution. For years, defrocked Sandinista priests and liberation theologians everywhere insisted that socialism represented the “preferential option for the poor.” Now the poorest of the poor, in secret ballot, repudiated their supposed champions and benefactors.
This was an extraordinary state of affairs.
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Progressive reaction to the Sandinista defeat came in two distinct phases. The first was the immediate post-election awakening, recorded by the numerous observers down in Nicaragua. This may be described as ideological indigestion. The second and later phase consisted of convoluted and often amusing efforts to come to terms with the facts.
The first, and perhaps heaviest blow fell on the sizeable community of Sandinista internationalistas. These folks, after all, are true believers. They have made considerable sacrifices for the revolution. Thousands of them have lived in Nicaragua for the past few years, picking coffee, wearing bandannas and sandals, exchanging contra horror stories.
At the International Hotel in Managua, there was utter disbelief when the vote totals were announced. American and European internationalistas sobbed openly and accused the peasants of betraying Danny Ortega. Phrases like “what incredible ingratitude” and “stupid peasants” echoed throughout the corridors and bar.
Don McClain, executive director of the Kansas City Interfaith Peace Alliance, told the Kansas City Times, “The victory by UNO’s Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was a setback for self-determination and democracy in Central America.” A California doctor told U.S. reporters that not she but Nicaraguans had made a terrible mistake. At the post-election rally, when Daniel Ortega rose to speak, a Nicaraguan remarked, “Oh, it’s the ex-president,” at which point an American woman broke into tears. “He’s still the president,” she protested.
A week later, the New York Times found what it called the “Sandinista foreign legion” less openly hostile to the campesinos, but still bitter. At such places as the Casa Benjamin Linder and Oats for Peace office of the Nicaragua Network, Americans vowed to stay and represent the “true interests” of the Nicaraguan people.
Nina Shea, executive director of the Puebla Institute, a Catholic human rights group that monitored the election, was approached on several occasions by American visitors, human rights lawyers, and reporters who expressed amazement at what had happened. “Repression alienates people,” Shea explained, but the inevitable response was “Repression? What repression?” The Sandinistas were regarded as political saints—all charges against them only confirmed their martyrdom.
In the same vein, William Croty, co-chairman of the Latin American Studies Association in this country, kept telling his academic colleagues, “Gee, I just don’t get it. This is going to blow the minds of the political science community. It will be in the case books for years.” Martin Diskin, also of L ASA, adopted the argument that American assistance had hurt Violeta Chamorro, until someone reminded him that the implication of his position was that, without U.S. aid, the Sandinistas would have received even fewer votes.
For several weeks before the election, the National Catholic Reporter whooped up the Sandinistas, preparing its readers for a “special issue” on Nicaragua that would no doubt proclaim the triumph of liberation theology. The results seem to have paralyzed thought at NCR offices. Of course, it would be too much of an embarrassment to quote Penny Lernoux now. Publisher Bill McSweeney continued to hype Sandinista achievements and decry contra “terrorism, torture, and rape,” but he had no explanation whatever for why Nicaraguans seemed to prefer the “torturers and rapists” at the polls. McSweeney concluded with a hollow call for the U.S. to abandon its policy of “economic and military imperialism.”
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At the U.S. Catholic Conference, resident Sandinista-booster Tom Quigley sounded a despondent note. Quigley is certainly too sophisticated to rant against the Nicaraguan campesinos whose cause he has claimed to champion for years. “Nobody on the left is celebrating” the election results, he conceded. “Did all this happen because of, or despite, the contras? I don’t know.”
Quigley would not comment on whether the Reagan-Bush policies toward Central America now seem vindicated, in particular their presumption that the Sandinistas were repressive and unpopular with the people. “I just can’t say,” he said. Contrary to many people’s earlier estimations, the invasion of Panama “appears to have strengthened Chamorro,” Quigley added.
Taking some solace in the fact that “the Sandinistas will remain a strong political force,” Quigley expressed hope that “political debate will now return to Nicaragua, without the presence of the Cold War.” The election result, he said, “will probably move ahead the peace process, and that’s the most important issue.” Quigley also said it was “somewhat more likely” that the Salvadoran guerrillas would now reach a settlement with the U.S.-supported democratic government.
While Quigley was not willing to dismiss the importance of the religious left in Central America, he granted that the post-Vietnam strain of U.S. leftism “seems to be out of steam.”
Sharply contrasting with Quigley’s candid admissions were the remarks of Fr. Simon Smith, S.J., director of Jesuit missions at the Jesuit Social Ministries. The elections were “not a vote for Chamorro and against Ortega,” Smith said, but rather a “vote for change from miserable conditions.”
Nevertheless, Smith held not the Sandinistas, but the United States, responsible for those conditions. “The Sandinistas didn’t deliver because they were under an embargo. It is not human to starve a country, and that’s what we were doing.”
Perhaps Smith was correct that our refusal to trade with the Sandinistas constituted a form of punishment, but if so, didn’t this disprove the “dependency theory” of liberation theologians, which holds that it is good for Latin countries to be liberated from corrupting foreign influences? Smith confessed to being stumped by this. Trade and aid, he said, were American moral responsibilities no matter what the liberation theologians say.
Smith said that the election results surprised him because “my view was that the contras were not popular. I never saw any enthusiasm for them in Managua or anywhere else.” Further, Smith credited the Sandinistas with improving literacy and health and re-distributing land. He even excused the Sandinistas’ failure to hold free elections in the past. “It was eight years after our American revolution that we had our first free election. We forget our own history,” Smith said.
“Violeta and company don’t have a program,” he added. “There is no indication that she can assure a fair distribution of goods.” Socialism, not democracy, appeared to be Smith’s qualification for the legitimacy of a government.
“No way has liberation theology been proven wrong,” Smith protested. “The poor did not vote against the Sandinistas. I mean, they did, but that was because the U.S.-backed military force was killing villagers, and the people finally said: enough.”
This implies that U.S. policy toward Nicaragua was successful, in that it brought about its desired objective of exposing and replacing the Sandinista government. “What Reagan and Bush did came out of an indefensible paranoia about communism,” Smith complained. “I am afraid many people are now going to be strengthened in that paranoia.”
Although Smith admitted that “I would prefer that the Sandinistas stay in power,” everyone was obliged to respect the ballot results, he said. Smith was genuinely distressed at reports of Sandinista looting of government facilities and threats not to relinquish power. “If the Sandinistas fail to turn over power smoothly,” Smith said, “then my faith in them will be shattered.”
Most fanatical in her reaction was Sr. Maureen Fiedler, who directs the Quest for Peace program of the Quixote Center, and who was entirely unconditional in her belief in the Sandinistas. “It’s confusing,” she said of the election results. Maybe people lied to pollsters because “they were ashamed of what they were doing. They were ashamed of going against Ortega and the revolution. Their hearts were with the revolution.” So what happened? “They wanted food and they wanted peace. So they held their noses and voted for UNO.”
In earlier press accounts, Fiedler echoed the same theme, claiming that the campesinos “voted with their bellies,” not their hearts. While this seemed to reduce the poor to their material needs by implying that they could not be expected to care about political and intellectual rights or freedom, Fiedler’s claim conceded a good deal because it implied that the revolution had failed on its own terms—it had failed to ameliorate the plight of the poor, and it brought conflict instead of harmony.
Fiedler, too, was convinced that the U.S. was to blame. “Who knows what last-minute stuff the U.S. pulled,” she said. “Our policy has been one of violence and terrorism. Unfortunately it worked. But that is to our shame.” The Sandinistas succumbed to “economic strangulation,” Fiedler said. “They cried uncle, as Reagan wanted them to.”
Maybe people voted for UNO because “they were scared of the contras,” Fiedler speculated. She conceded that it was an odd practice for people in secret ballot to vote into power people of whom they are afraid. Why would they lie to pollsters if they did not fear Sandinista—rather than contra—recriminations? Here Fiedler simply invoked “the old Nicaraguan tradition of the mask—people conceal their true feelings and don’t let them out.”
Fiedler refused to admit that the poor voted against the Sandinistas. “I haven’t seen all the figures,” she said. Did she feel that the identification by liberation theologians of the interests of the poor with socialist revolution was now rendered problematic? “I don’t follow you,” Fiedler said. She paused. “Remember that 41 percent of the people voted for the Sandinistas. Some of these people must have been campesinos, right?”
It is perhaps cruel to dissect the arguments of these representative voices of progressive dismay. The claim that the U.S. ruined the Sandinista economy might be more plausible if socialist economies around the world were not crumbling. Suspicion that the U.S. rigged the election is belied by the fact that the Sandinistas controlled the process, and in fact used the entire apparatus of the state for campaign purposes. Before the election the Sandinistas handed out free T-shirts, fluorescent shoelaces (which are popular with teenagers), Barbie dolls, backpacks, hairspray, and make-up.
In fact, state coercion resulted in Sandinista rallies of several hundred thousand people, while the largest UNO rally was 50,000. This Sandinista manipulation backfired and confused the West into anticipating a Sandinista victory. Defeat, when it came, was all the more devastating.
Ultimately, Western reaction to the Nicaraguan election must be assessed not in rational but in psychological terms. In his book Political Pilgrims, Paul Hollander suggests an explanation for the crisis of con-science we now see on the American political and religious left. Hollander explains that progressive elites have for the past half-century invested their hopes in finding a socialist peasant paradise abroad. First it was the Soviet Union in the 1930s, then Mao’s China in the 1950s, then Castro’s Cuba in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Each time that evidence completely discredited this left-wing fantasy, it migrated to another country.
In the 1980s, these hopes descended on Nicaragua—here, finally, socialism would be a success: “The most beautiful movement in my lifetime,” the Rev. William Sloane Coffin said.
Here, finally, priests such as Miguel d’Escoto and Fernando and Ernesto Cardenal integrated faith with revolutionary commitment. Here the commandantes composed poetry. Here the Vietnam generation could get away from the “illusions” of American prosperity and bourgeois values and find bliss by spouting revolutionary slogans on the patio of the International Hotel in Managua.
“I ran into some of the American professors and church people down there at election time,” Nina Shea said. “These people believe in the dictatorship of the intelligentsia. They identify with the Sandinistas, not because the Sandinistas are like the campesinos, but because the Sandinistas are like them. All that stuff about representing the poor is ridiculous.”
Paulist priest Robert Sirico returned from Nicaragua and noted that campesinos typically ridiculed foreign visitors as “sandalistas,” in reference to their footwear and their generally unkempt appearance. “Why do those people refuse to bathe?” one peasant woman asked Sirico. “They say they want to be like the poor, but we know how to keep ourselves clean.”
In the absence of a referendum, however, Jesuit activists, radical nuns, and liberation theologians were able to sustain the illusion of popular support. Now not only have the Nicaraguan people rejected these claims as a sham, unrepresentative of their interests and indeed hostile to them, but it seems that the nomadic quest for paradise in this world may be coming to an end. This dove has now no place to land. The world seems to be running out of potential venues for the peasant utopia of the liberal imagination. The result is frustration, bordering on desperation.