MANAGUA, Nicaragua—On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the day the Sandinistas swept into power, a silver-haired revolutionary contemplated what he perceived to be Nicaragua’s greatest achievements, and mistakes, after the uprising.
A revered guerrilla hero, Eden Pastora, also known as “Comandante Cero,” executed the August 1978 siege of the Palacio Nacional that thrust the Sandinista struggle onto the world stage, and eventually led to the toppling of the dynastic dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza the following July.
A black and white photograph of a young Pastora, with a rifle raised in one hand, hangs on the wall behind his office desk, memorializing the day he stormed the Palacio. But for Pastora, the fight began years before that moment, he says, thinking back to 1945 when National Guardsmen killed his father, Panfilo Pastora, a farm worker who opposed the Somoza regime.
“I grew up always wanting a father. Somoza’s National Guard assassinated my father when I was 7 years old. For me that’s when it all began; when I learned the meaning of the word assassination. That’s when my fight began,” Pastora said during an interview in his humble yet well-guarded home.
He took up a rifle as soon as he could hold one, he said, and went on to become the revolution’s strongman at the Southern Front straddling Nicaragua’s border with Costa Rica. However, like other former comrades of President Daniel Ortega, Pastora became disillusioned with the party and defected. He sought to bring about a counterinsurgency against his old comrades to, in his words, “rescue the original project of the revolution.” Although the guerrilla chief praised Ortega’s social programs, such as the national literacy campaign, he criticized the leadership for allowing the erosion of basic freedoms during its 10 years of rule following the revolution.
“The companeros (who were leading the country) were really young, they lacked a level of statesmanship, and they made mistakes,” he said. He cited media censorship, lack of political freedom and lack of respect for human rights among the “errors” that made him want to defect.
But Pastora and Ortega have somehow reconciled their differences. Pastora said much has changed during Ortega’s rule this time around, after an election victory in November 2006 following 16 years of lost elections. “Now we’re having a revolution the way we ought to have done in 1980, with freedom, democracy and respect for human rights,” Pastora claimed.
Ortega’s detractors differ.
Critics have levied harsh accusations against Ortega, including charges that he rigged November’s municipal elections, after minority parties such as a Sandinista splinter group were prohibited from participating. The United States recently added critical pressure, cutting $64 million in development aid after the controversial November mayoral vote that spiraled into weeks of street violence here.
Ortega claims that this foreign aid loss will be made up by funds from his close ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, through the cooperation and trade bloc known as ALBA. This has led many to wonder about a deepening of Chavez’s left-wing influence across the region. But some experts say the rise of Latin America’s left seems like a given after failed dependencies on the International Monetary Fund and the United States.
“These economic agreements (such as ALBA) are at the core of the clashes of ideology that are erupting right now,” said Adrienne Pine, associate professor of anthropology at Washington’s American University. “Should Latin Americans be looking to Latin America for their development? Does development mean increasing profits of a few or does it mean making education, health care and infrastructure accessible? Those are the basic questions that are being asked and people are lining up along class lines,” she said.
Especially among the region’s poor, “there’s a great attraction to the south” instead of the north, she added.
Among Ortega’s fiercest critics are women’s rights groups. Ortega drew ire for forming an unlikely partnership with the Catholic Church and consequently banning therapeutic abortion, which is used when an expectant mother’s health is at risk. Also, the sexual abuse charges filed by Ortega’s stepdaughter against him did not help his standing among rights groups.
The government hit back at those critics late last year, launching investigations and office raids on NGOs and feminist groups that have spoken out against Ortega.
Feminist organizer Geni Gomez said her association Grupo Venancia was among those targeted in the investigation, in a crackdown that’s “not at all coherent” with the government’s revolutionary message. “This government is revolutionary and Sandinista only in its discourse; it’s capitalizing on its history,” she said.
However, Ortega and his administration can still draw the huge crowds. Speaking Sunday before thousands of flag waving supporters in the Plaza la Fe, first lady Rosario Murillo claimed there are more than 1 million Sandinista members nationwide. The country has a population of more than 5.7 million, according to the San Jose, Costa Rica-based Central American Population Center.
When Ortega addressed the thousands of supporters Sunday, he called for the term limits for president to be scrapped, which would allow him to run for reelection. This is a controversial move, sure to draw increased opposition from his critics, but it was cheered by his supporters.
“I feel so moved, so full of hope,” said 61-year-old Azucena Larios, who walked by the Plaza de la Revolucion Saturday night, before attending the massive celebration on Sunday at nearby Plaza la Fe along with thousands of Nicaraguans and foreign sympathizers and participants of the revolution. “I’m from the time of the ‘muchachos’ — we call them muchachos, the guerrillas who fought for the ideals of the Front,” she said.
After midnight Saturday, crowds and families with children were still lingering outside the plaza in anticipation, sipping light beer and listening to a blend of salsa and leftist folk anthems that blasted over car speakers. Flags are everywhere, and more often they bear the red and black of the revolutionary party — the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN — rather than the national flag’s blue and white.
For Comandante Cero, the red and black revolution lives on. “We definitely look back at these 30 years with joy, the revolutionary victory was a defeat for a military dictatorship of a dynastic family. That’s the triumph. Now we’re facing forward.”
Another GlobalPost dispatch on Nicaragua:
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