This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Two decades ago, when I was working as an editor at a publishing house, Chalmers Johnson, then an eminent scholar of Asia and a former CIA consultant, sent in a proposal for a book he was already calling Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. I still remember the passage from his prologue that convinced me it was indeed one that simply had to be done:
"One day at the height of the [Vietnam War] protests, I went to the university library to check out what was then available to students on Vietnamese communism, the history of communism in East Asia, and the international communist movement. I was surprised to find that all the major books were there on the shelves, untouched. The conclusion seemed obvious to me then: these students knew nothing about communism and had no interest in remedying that lack. They were defining the Vietnamese Communists largely out of their own romantic desires to oppose Washington's policies. As it turned out, however, they understood far better than I did the impulses of a Robert McNamara, a McGeorge Bundy, or a Walt Rostow. They grasped something essential about the nature of America's imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive. In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement. For all its naïvete' and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong."
If you take Johnson's conclusion to heart, it's one that you still can't go too wrong following. Since World War II, across vast stretches of the planet, from Iran or Guatemala in the 1950s, to Vietnam in the 1960s, to much of the Greater Middle East today, people have regularly suffered thanks to "America's imperial role in the world" -- even if the will of "the people" it was trying to undermine has been expressed in ways that, however "romantic" they may have seemed to some at the time, were themselves flawed. In our American world (even more so in the Trumpian one), it's always "them," never "us."
In today's post, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon explores one small but telling case of American power gone grim indeed: Nicaragua. She's been involved in opposing the expressions of such power there since the 1980s and so has quite a tale to tell, one that is, unfortunately, still appropriate to this twenty-first-century moment. Tom
Nicaragua at the Barricades
...And a Crossroads
By Rebecca Gordon
On April 19th, university students in Nicaragua's capital, Managua, exploded onto the streets. Their initial demand? A more effective government response to wildfires burning out of control in the country's most precious repository of biodiversity.
Soon, a social wildfire took hold in Managua and then spread across the country. Thousands of Nicaraguans added a second demand to the first: for President Daniel Ortega to revoke his recent changes to the country's social security law, which had simultaneously raised social security taxes (upsetting private enterprise) and cut benefits to seniors (angering many ordinary people). In the ensuing clashes, close to 200 Nicaraguans have died, hundreds have been arrested, and thousands have been injured, almost all at the hands of anti-riot police, unidentified snipers, or gangs of pro-government thugs on motorcycles. Today, this movement of auto-convocados (self-conveners) articulates two key demands: justice and democracy -- justice for those who have died at the government's hand and a return to democratic governance for Nicaragua.
Why should we care? In a world where the U.S. president proclaims his desire to see his people "sit up and pay attention" to him the way North Koreans do for Kim Jung-Un; where his attorney general tore children from their parents' arms; where the United States plans to initiate the militarization of space (despite our endorsement of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which outlaws exactly that) -- in such a world, why should people care what happens in an impoverished Central American nation thousands of miles from the centers of power?
Because there was a time when Nicaragua's imaginative, idiosyncratic revolution offered the world an example of how a people might shuck off the bonds of U.S. dominance and try to build a democratic country devoted to human well-being. I know, because I saw a little of that example during the six months I spent in Nicaragua's war zones in 1984, working with an organization called Witness for Peace. My job there was to report on the U.S.-backed counterrevolutionary (Contra) military campaign to overthrow the Sandinista government, which had replaced a vicious dictator in 1984. The Contras employed an intentional terrorist strategy of torture, kidnapping, and murder, targeting civilians in their homes and fields and workers in rural schools and clinics.
Some (Abbreviated) History
Nicaragua sits dead center on any map of the Americas and, in the 1980s, small as it was, it also occupied the center of the political imaginations of many people. In that country lay the hopes of millions living beyond its borders, hopes that a people really could become the protagonists of their own nation's story or, in the words of the Sandinista anthem, "dueño de su historia, arquitecto de su liberación" -- directors of their own history, architects of their own liberation.
Before the fall of its Washington-supported dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, in 1979, very few people outside Central America had given a thought to Nicaragua. It was the poorest, most illiterate nation in the region. Indeed, Somoza is reported to have said, "I don't need educated people. I need oxen!" (Or, as our own president put it during his 2016 campaign, "I love the poorly educated!") In the years following the dictator's ouster, Nicaragua became a symbol of hope for people on the left globally.
Somoza had treated Nicaragua like his own private hacienda, leasing out its hillsides for clear-cutting to U.S. and Canadian lumber companies and, along with an oligarchic class of landowners and businessmen, squeezing every dollar out of the people he ruled. He maintained his power thanks to a regime of intimidation, torture, and assassination. His National Guard functioned like a private army (and would eventually form the nucleus of the Contras after many of its members fled to neighboring Honduras when the Sandinistas came to power).
In 1979, however, after a year-long insurrection fought in the mountainous areas of the country by a guerrilla force armed with AK-47s and in the cities by ordinary citizens wielding homemade bombs thrown from behind barricades, the Somoza regime collapsed. By the time he fled, after a brutal final round of aerial bombardment, no sector of the country backed him. Erstwhile allies like the big landowners, private industry, and the Catholic Church, along with the press of all stripes, had all turned on him. So had the majority of Nicaraguans, the rural campesinos (a word inadequately translated as "peasants"), and the country's tiny urban working class. In the end, even his patrons in Washington abandoned Somoza as a hopeless cause.
A group called the Frente Sandinista (the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN) stepped into the vacuum he left. Founded in 1961, it took its name from Augusto Ce'sar Sandino, a guerrilla leader who had fought against a U.S. occupation of Nicaragua decades earlier. In 1978, despite internal disagreements, the group united around four basic principles of governance: political pluralism; the formation of a mixed economy, including private ownership, state-owned enterprises, and collectives; popular mobilization through a variety of mass organizations; and a foreign policy of nonalignment.
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