Ambivalent Memories

A Reflection on Nicaragua

by | May 20, 2019

On July 20, 1979, the dawn after the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, I had the good fortune to arrive in Managua as an assistant for a Dutch TV crew. As for anyone who lived through those days, the experience overwhelmed my senses—the palpable collective joy tempered by the immense pain suffered by so many. I’ll never forget one moment. I was behind the Teatro Ruben Dario trying to interview a woman who was hovering over the corpse of her son—I felt awful doing it but the Dutch tv guys insisted—she was crying but her brother put his arm on her shoulder and said, “Componéte; Necesitamos que el mundo conozca nuestra historia….get hold of yourself, the world needs to know our story.”

When I started graduate school three years later, I remembered what the woman’s brother had said and decided to try to help out with the process of recovering Nicaraguan history. I returned in May 1983 to research the history of sugar workers at the San Antonio Sugar Mill. Although fully sympathetic with the revolution, I brought some intellectual and political baggage along with me: my prior life experiences shaped my understandings.

During my adolescence I had been an anti war activist and in 1971 I had worked in a communications collective in Turin, Italy, tied to the labor movement. Later, I spent several years working as a labor organizer in the United States. In the light of those activist years, the work of Paul Mattick, an obscure German council communist thinker seemed compelling to me. He argued that Leninism was the appropriate ideology of third world revolution precisely because it served as the ideology of groups whose goals could only be the development of a nationally-directed capitalist society. They inevitably became authoritarian, as was Leninism at its core, because the vanguard party needs to lead workers and peasants on an exploitative path to capital accumulation under state or mixed control. In other words, regardless of its intentions, all the Frente Sandinista could accomplish was to create conditions in which such capital accumulation would avoid the excesses of primitive accumulation elsewhere. The possibilities of a truly popular and democratic social (not to say socialist) revolution were virtually nil.

So that’s the ideological baggage I brought with me. Shortly after I arrived, I remember attending a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDS) meeting in a working-class Managua neighborhood. The young Sandinista leading the meeting would end each discussion point with a smile and a shout: “Direccion Nacional Ordene!”—The National Directorate Orders it so!

I wanted to believe that the smile was ironic and that in her own way she was saying, “hey, we are building a community here around community needs and that’s what this revolution is about.” I didn’t want Mattick to be proven right. Now, looking back and reading a long letter I wrote in August 1983 I to my graduate advisor, I realize how my preconceived theoretical notions nearly collapsed under the weight of my daily experience of revolutionary society. Writing about playing basketball in Luis Alfonso Velasquez Park, named after the nine-year-old martyr, I observed, “the newly-planted trees are growing; someday soon this will be among the most beautiful people’s parks in the world. Children (including my daughter) play well into the evening; they shout and scream but their parents relax. Soldiers from the nearby cuartel mix amicably, naturally …” Another day, talking to a Sandinista army lieutenant, who shared a small home with 19 extended family members, he commented, “This is a revolution against privilege.” The next day talking to a campesino, he remarked, “Look, to be a campesino will never be easy. You get up at dawn and you work hard. The sun’s not going to get any cooler. But now we have land and the campesinos who work on the state farm only work five hours and then they work on their own plots. Before it was only the rich who farmed the land and we who worked it. They gave the orders. We obeyed. Today its our turn to speak and that’s why they are so pissed off.”

So my prior ideological baggage began to come apart at the seams—only to reassemble itself over the next years of research in Chinandega as my own ambivalences intensified as I witnessed problematic and sometimes painful scenes like when a woman was taken off of a bus and had her beans confiscated because she wasn’t selling to ENABAS (a state distribution agency). Of course, that policy did not last long but its afterlife did. Indeed, a refrain I remember “no nos dejan trabajar”—they don’t let us work— found its discursive justification in such practices, however short-lived.

On countless bus rides from Chichigalpa to Chinandega or to Rancherías, I witnessed people loudly complaining about all sorts of sins of the Sandinistas including the lack of freedom. And they complained without trepidation in front of soldiers or police officers who happened to be seated near them. Those complaints that gave the lie to Reaganite propaganda about totalitarianism, nonetheless did reflect genuine anger and resentment against the draft and other authoritarian tendencies of the revolution—such as the new, top-down defense orientation of the CDS—that were only made less digestible by the constant reminders that basic necessities were not available.

The cumulative effect of these coercive strains of the revolution produced ambivalence even among Sandinista supporters. When I asked someone if he or she was going to the demonstration, the response, “hay que ir, no? —We have to go, don’t we?” might have been a strong affirmative statement a few years earlier but by 1985-86 the tone was more ambivalent. Only a serious study of the revolutionary process could directly ascertain how debilitating that ambivalence was within the FSLN.

That ambivalence compounded another problem: Sandinista militants worked themselves to the point of exhaustion—and then they had to go to yet another meeting. They worked so hard both because of the Contra and the imperialist threat but also because so many other people—students, workers, peasants and others—were increasingly less inclined to contribute their share outside of their jobs. They were the folks whose ambivalence began to show.

This process of distancing through militant exhaustion and popular ambivalence only got worse. I can only assume the higher you got within the FSLN, the more opaque this problem was. But surely its symbolic apotheosis was the pre-electoral triumphalist reading of 1990, especially the half million strong demonstration in Managua. I’m not suggesting that the study of ambivalence is a scientifically verifiable— especially attempting to access the exhaustion/ambivalence phenomenon in the past— but I do think it is worth the effort.

Curiously both Charles R. Hale and I independently in the 1980s used a version of Gramsci’s concept of contradictory consciousness in order to understand the thought and action of Nicaraguan subalterns. It certainly didn’t occur to me to use this concept to grapple with ambivalence problem I sketched above. For us, contradictory consciousness suggested that people maintained two separate but relatively coherent discourses. For example, a San Antonio Sugar Mill worker had a sense of respect and dependence on the company and at the same time a sense of class solidarity with other workers. The question of ambivalence is related to contradictory consciousness, but it is not exactly the same since the former involves more contradictory feelings about the same moment or thought, expressed in ambivalent words.

My own ambivalence towards the revolutionary process—with the process, but not with the Sandinistas—certainly conditioned my own research. Primarily, I wished to contribute by critiquing fundamental problems of historical interpretation that conditioned contemporary revolutionary ideology. And here, I was guilty of a ridiculous amount of hubris, but in my defense I needed some mystique to survive in the miserably hot cotton country of Chinandega. My own attitude towards Leninism pushed me to search for autonomous forms of organization—a hypersensitivity that perhaps overvalued autonomous peasant organization but I don’t think I ever lost sight of the continual reassertion of subaltern dependency on elites of varying ideologies.

My research during the 1980s suggested a fundamental problem for the Sandinistas or for any other project of national transformation. I observed how local campesinos and nationally-oriented actors often shared vocabularies but inflected them with different resonances and meanings. These desencuentros or misunderstandings were at times unconscious and at times part of a search for common ground with authorities. These shared vocabularies were often quite effective in periods of mobilization. During the 1950s and 1960s campesinos in Chinandega and León mobilized and came to understand the world in terms of prevailing notions of private property and necessity, necesidad, terms that were not immediately threatening to authorities.

They inflected these elite and religious concepts with new meanings that allowed them to understand their own struggles that went beyond everyday survival. As they struggled through and against the institutions dominated by Somoza— Somocismo—, they developed broader collective understanding of those terms that allowed them to enter into dialogue with the Liberation Theology-influenced wing of the Sandinista movement during the 1970s.

By the late 1980s, however, the very multivocality of terms led to descencuentros: linguistic misunderstandings that reflected and conditioned the failed encounter between the FSLN and the Chinandegan campesino activists. The expressions that that had solidified the prior alliance, such as “Land to the Campesinos” or “people’s property” led to serious breakdowns in communication and alliances. The Chinandeganos who had fought alongside the Sandinistas after ten years silently broke with them, angered that their goals embodied in their own histories were simply not taken seriously. State cotton farms could not represent the “people’s land” for which they had fought so valiantly. Ironically, following the electoral defeat of 1990, for a brief period the notion of “people’s land” and “people’s property” acquired new meanings more akin to those of the prerevolutionary Chinandeganos, as organized rural workers and peasants pushed hard to privatize the state farms in favor of the workers.

In reflecting back on the period, it strikes me that the revolutionary imaginary, the utopian egalitarian vision announced in the euphoria of 1979 that I could still catch glimpses of in 1983 did not have a formal expression on any political agenda. But could such a vision have been incorporated into the FSLN’s program? The FSLN would have been obliged to tolerate the more or less autonomous labor and peasant movements that were unleashed in 1979. Similarly, the leadership would have had to accept the yearnings of grassroots militants for the individual or cooperative appropriation of the fruits of proletarian and peasant labor along with the egalitarian spirit that resisted all forms of coercion. Indeed, the role of the revolutionary state might have been to enforce laws that protected citizens and their property against such popular excesses, but not to thwart the movements themselves. Had the Frente opted to stimulate rather than control the grassroots movements, it might also have swept early elections before Reagan could unleash the Contra War.

If the exigencies of the world market and imperial domination placed rigid, objective limits on any revolutionary experiment, this counterfactual imagining, has the advantage of allowing us to dialogue with the interesting reflections of Guatemalan sociologist Edelberto Torres Rivas who has argued that the Central American revolutions were at once inevitable and illusory, precisely because non-revolutionary forces could not overthrow the Somoza regime (and the entrenched oligarchies elsewhere) and because the revolutionary goals were impossible to attain (echoes of Paul Mattick). And yet throughout Central America, just off the main highways of the revolution, one could make out a different story. In OPEN 3, a few days after the triumph, a 16- or 17-year-old muchacho, as the Sandinistas called the boy fighters, gun in hand, stood in front of an enraged crowd ready to execute four Somocista orejas (informers] who cowered behind the boy. He didn’t shoot.. Instead, he shouted, “Look, compañeros, we are creating a new Nicaragua and we need a new type of revolution—a humanist revolution.” “(Miren compañeros: estamos creando una nueva Nicaragua y necesitamos un nuevo tipo de revolución – una revolución humanista.”)

I still wonder was that really just youthful rhetoric lost in the idiot winds of history or did it announce a path ultimately not taken … but one that still lays beneath the accumulated toxic sediment of decades of imperial domination, authoritarian politics, and neoliberal policies.

Spring/Summer 2019Volume XVIII, Number 3

Jeffrey L. Gould is Rudy Professor of History at Indiana University at Bloomington. He was a 2016-17 Fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center. He has also made three documentaries about Central America, Scars of Memory: El Salvador, 1932, La Palabra en el Bosque and Port Triumph [distributed by IU Press]. His most recent book, Solidarity Under Siege: The Salvadoran Labor Movement, 1970-1990 was just published by Cambridge University Press.

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