- Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award: War & Military, Silver Medal
Robert J. Sierakowski's Sandinistas: A Moral History offers a bold new perspective on the liberation movement that brought the Sandinista National Liberation Front to power in Nicaragua in 1979, overthrowing the longest-running dictatorship in Latin America. Unique sources, from trial transcripts to archival collections and oral histories, offer a new vantage point beyond geopolitics and ideologies to understand the central role that was played by everyday Nicaraguans. Focusing on the country’s rural north, Sierakowski explores how a diverse coalition of labor unionists, student activists, housewives, and peasants inspired by Catholic liberation theology came to successfully challenge the legitimacy of the Somoza dictatorship and its entrenched networks of power. Mobilizing communities against the ubiquitous cantinas, gambling halls, and brothels, grassroots organizers exposed the regime’s complicity in promoting social ills, disorder, and quotidian violence while helping to construct radical new visions of moral uplift and social renewal.
Sierakowski similarly recasts our understanding of the Nicaraguan National Guard, grounding his study of the Somozas’ army in the social and cultural world of the ordinary soldiers who enlisted and fought in defense of the dictatorship. As the military responded to growing opposition with heightened state terror and human rights violations, repression culminated in widespread civilian massacres, stories that are unearthed for the first time in this work. These atrocities further exposed the regime’s moral breakdown in the eyes of the public, pushing thousands of previously unaligned Nicaraguans into the ranks of the guerrilla insurgency by the late 1970s. Sierakowski’s innovative reinterpretation of the Sandinista Revolution will be of interest to students, scholars, and activists concerned with Latin American social movements, the Cold War, and human rights.
1. State of Disorder: Vice, Corruption, and the Somoza Dictatorship
2. Burning Down the Brothels: Moral Regeneration and the Emergence of Sandinismo, 1956-1970
3. Persecuting the Living Christ: Guerrillas, Catholics, and Repression, 1968-1976
4. They Planted Corn and Harvested Guards: Somoza’s National Guard and Secret Police at the Grassroots
5. A Crime to be Young: Families in Insurrection, September 1976 - September 1978
6. How Costly is Freedom!: Massacres, Community, and Sacrifice, October 1978 - July 1979
Epilogue: Whither the Revolution? Nicaragua and the Sandinistas since 1979
"Robert J. Sierakowski argues that the promise of moral regeneration and the imposition of 'law and order' became the key factor that drew the population of the rural north to the Sandinista vision of revolution. This argument about the distinctive radical nature of the Sandinistas is intriguing and makes an important contribution to the field." —Lindsey Churchill, author of Becoming the Tupamaros
"In Sandinistas: A Moral History, Robert J. Sierakowski brilliantly moves away from the Cold War matrix to examine the rise and fall of the Sandinista movement of the 1970s and 1980s. This is essential reading for anyone interested not only in the Sandinistas of the 1980s, but also for those seeking to understand the complicated moral landscape in Nicaragua today." —Virginia Garrard, author of Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit
"An absolutely essential contribution to understanding Nicaraguan society and the Nicaraguan revolution from the bottom up. With deep sympathy for the poor Nicaraguans who were drawn into the brutality of the National Guard and the Contras, as well as those who threw their lives into building a revolutionary society, this book offers a completely new gendered interpretation of the 1979 revolution and of Nicaraguan culture and society." —Aviva Chomsky, author of A History of the Cuban Revolution
"Sierakowski reveals a compelling paradox at the center of the Sandinista insurgency, namely, that a radical social movement can respond to the masses’ 'conservative' demands—moral regeneration, family harmony, and the preservation of tradition—which the Somoza regime abandoned. Historiographically aware, deeply rooted in original evidence and lucidly written, this is an excellent study that will make a lasting mark." —Erik Ching, author of Stories of Civil War in El Salvador
“Sierakowski does not so much overturn received wisdom about the Sandinista Revolution as retell it through a new lens of moral regeneration. He reveals a paradox at the center of the Sandinistas that has not received sufficient scholarly attention to date, namely that a core aspect of the Sandinistas’ popular support was their appeal to ‘conservative’ values, which the Somoza dictatorship had trampled.” —Choice
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 Marines earlier in the twentieth century.” However, I contend, rather than the imposition of “law and order,” the longevity of the Somoza regime was due precisely to its willingness to countenance criminal disorder. 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 ideologically-oriented military dictatorships, the Somozas’ “sultanistic” and personalistic regime remained isolated from society and, thus, structurally prone to popular upheaval. Historians Jeffrey Gould, Victoria 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 laborers, and women, while negotiating power-sharing pacts with wealthy political adversaries in the private sector. 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 United States military occupation of the 1920s and 30s. Following the U.S. Marine Corps’ 1927 invasion of the country—their third intervention since 1909—the North Americans organized and armed a new military and police force, the National Guard of Nicaragua. The U.S. later handpicked a relatively obscure military officer, General Anastasio Somoza García, to serve as the first Nicaraguan commander of this constabulary force. With the Americans’ withdrawal in 1933, Sandino negotiated a provisional peace treaty with the Nicaraguan government. In an act of betrayal, General Somoza had the unarmed rebel leader treacherously assassinated the following year. With his major challenger for national power eliminated, Somoza soon carried out a coup against the elected president and began ruling as the country’s strongman in 1936. After two decades of personal dictatorial rule, he too was assassinated in 1956 by a young poet in the city of León. Following his murder, Somoza García was succeeded in power by his sons Luis and Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
Throughout the long decades of Somocista family rule, government 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 parallel, 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 entire underground “amoral economy” based upon 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 overwhelmingly male, a significant number of women who demonstrated loyalty to the regime controlled the trade at the community 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 political 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. My work moves beyond previous approaches 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 government. 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.
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 Somoza 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 Nations), Nicaragua took the lead with the world’s highest homicide rate. This disastrous rise in crime and murder was recognized even by the dictatorship’s primary international sponsors. 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 out of the city of Managua.” American experts three years later continued to sound the alarm regarding rising levels of violence, writing that, “Murder and aggravated assault appear 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 population regularly go armed.”
Much of the violence of the Somoza years was not political in essence 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, elections, and religious festivals only added further fuel to the fire. Although the government kept no official statistics, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and rape were also widespread and correlated with popular perceptions of family breakdown. While alcohol and quotidian violence had long been salient features of the country’s social landscape, 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 encouragement 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. 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.
(Excerpted from Introduction)