Sandinista swansong

COVER Adios Muchachos 2222Adiós Muchachos: A Memoir of the Sandinista Revolution
Sergio Ramírez, translated by Stacey Alba D Skar
2012, Duke University Press
239 pages

ONE OF THE most enlightening aspects of Sergio Ramírez’s now classic memoir of the Nicaraguan Revolution is how it sheds light on the divisions that would shatter the alliance at the top of the Sandinista movement and force the writer to bow out and say goodbye to his erstwhile comrades – the “Adiós Muchachos” of the book’s title.

What is most ironic is that it was democratization – or at least the defeat in unfair elections in 1990 of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) by the US-funded Unión Nacional Oppositora (UNO) coalition under the conservative Violeta Chamorro – that brought to a head those divisions leading to Ramírez’s eventual exit after years of loyal service at the heart of Central America’s most successful revolutionary movement.

The former vice president’s leading role in the Nicaraguan Revolution is without question, as head of the intellectuals, priests, business figures and civil society activists who backed the FSLN at a crucial stage in its uprising against the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Ramírez brought with him the key cross-class alliance that made this revolution – and, indeed, most revolutions – possible. After it triumphed in 1979, Ramírez became a leading figure in the revolutionary junta , with his own portfolio being education., and was then elected vice-president in 1984 alongside Daniel Ortega, a role he carried out until 1990.

Adiós Muchachos provides a fascinating, first-hand account of the 11-year Revolution and the campaign of destabilization, violence and blackmail against Nicaragua mounted by the US under Ronald Reagan in an effort to bring down the Sandinistas. This campaign was ultimately successful to the extent that the civil war waged against the Sandinistas by the US-backed Contra forces proved so debilitating – and compulsory conscription so politically costly – that voters opted for change in 1990.

Despite Chamorro’s presidential victory, the Sandinistas were able through alliances to retain legislative power and Ramírez points in the years following the election to the complex deals he and others had to forge – in particular his alliance with the UNO’s Antonio Lacayo representing the government and Humberto Ortega representing the army – in an effort to bring democratization, stability and institutional form to the new Nicaragua.

An important outcome of the election and the deals that had to be made was that it began to put distance between the Sandinista legislative block – which Ramírez led – and the movement itself. These deals were pieced together while disarming the Contras and transforming the army – and a militarized society – but began to fray over the issue of constitutional reform because of the political ambitions of the key protagonists. Ramírez writes:

“The debate over the reforms put an end to the alliance that had formed between Antonio Lacayo, Humberto Ortega and myself… The alliance collapsed in part from Antonio Lacayo’s unyielding opposition to the constitutional reforms, which blocked his own presidential candidacy for being Violeta’s son-in-law. It also had to do with Humberto Ortega’s insistence on continuing indefinitely as army chief of staff, before he clashed with Violeta, which finally forced his exit. It was also related to the rupture within the FSLN, in which I was a participant.”

Ramírez provides a lucid and historically important account of the defining event of an era which will be required reading for students of the region for many years to come.

But we also get the picture of a cultured and erudite man who does not bear grudges, either against his former political enemies in Nicaragua or against ordinary people in the US where he lectures and travels, despite his detailed critique of imperialism and insights into the cynical role played by Washington in the downfall of the Sandinistas. Ramírez is first and foremost an intellectual, and every page of this book reveals layers of understanding that put the man head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries.

He was also a moderate, resigning ultimately because of what he saw as the heavy-handed domination of the party by Daniel Ortega and the latter’s devotion to the traditional ideology of the anti-imperialist left that, at that time, was being tested by perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Ramírez founded the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) that took a a more social democratic approach to the country’s many problems than the hardliners in the FSLN and brought him in line with many contemporaries throughout Latin America at that time. His unsuccessful bid for president on the MRS ticket in 1996 represented his political swansong.

But politics can be like that – very often the best men are those that fall by the wayside. To Ramírez – who has built a highly successful career as a writer – the end of his political career was merely the start of another, arguably even more distinguished, stage in his life.