Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

NICARAGUA: Sandinistas Celebrate Anniversary of Revolution – in Church

Felipe Jaime

MEXICO CITY, Jul 19 2004 (IPS) - Twenty-five years ago the world was taken by surprise by the triumph of the leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza after nearly two decades of armed struggle.

However, on Monday they did not celebrate the anniversary with rifles in their hands, but with a mass in this Central American country’s main cathedral.

The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, headed by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, gathered in the religious ceremony attended by the top leaders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), led by former president Daniel Ortega (1984-1990).

On Jul. 19, 1979, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans occupied the country’s public squares in what they called the Sandinista Popular Revolution, which aimed at transforming the nation’s political and economic structures from the roots up after 50 years of Somoza family dictatorship.

Nearly 11 years later, the Sandinistas were defeated in the February 1990 elections. But the movement’s leaders say the revolution and its achievements remain alive and that they will make it back to power through the polls, just as they won the first elections after the revolution, in 1984.

”The first 25 years of the Sandinista revolution represent the maturity of the consolidation of democracy in Nicaragua,” FSLN lawmaker Edwin Castro told IPS by phone from Nicaragua.

”The revolution was a total change, because it transformed the way of seeing reality and of seeing and living life in Nicaragua,” said Castro, who heads the legislators of the FSLN – the main opposition party – in parliament.

One of the first and biggest achievements of the Sandinista revolution was the National Literacy Crusade, launched in 1980 and carried out by the Citizens’ Literacy Army, made up of 30,000 high school students and 20,000 workers and homemakers who visited the most remote corners of the country to teach campesinos (peasant farmers) how to read and write.

The campaign, led by Carlos Tunnerman, slashed the illiteracy rate from over 70 percent to around 10 percent – considered one of the greatest feats of the revolution not only due to the success of the literacy drive itself but to the Sandinistas’ ability to mobilise thousands of people in brigades with a social focus.

Today, illiteracy has bounced back to between 20 and 25 percent.

But the war waged against the revolution from the early 1980s by the ‘contra’ fighters led by former Somoza allies and armed and financed by the U.S. administration of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), and the economic woes caused by the burden of the civil war as well as misguided economic policies and errors committed by the Sandinista leadership weakened the party’s support base, leading to its 1990 defeat at the polls.

Today, perhaps in an attempt to strengthen its social base in a country where the vast majority of people are Catholics, the FSLN is embracing reconciliation with the Church leadership, which was staunchly opposed to the Sandinistas.

Although the Sandinista slogan was ”there is no contradiction between faith (in God) and the revolution”, and the FSLN was supported by priests who followed liberation theology – the ”option for the poor” -, the conservative Church hierarchy, led by Cardinal Obando y Bravo, and the leaders of the revolution clashed loudly in the 1980s.

Even Pope John Paul himself told priests who joined the revolution and accepted posts in the Sandinista government, like Miguel D’Escoto and the brothers Fernando and Ernesto Cardenal, to leave their public positions or be defrocked.

The confrontation heated up on Mar. 4, 1983, when the Pope, on a visit to Nicaragua, called for silence as a crowd chanted for peace while he held mass in one of the main public squares in Managua.

But the shouts demanding that the ‘contras’ stop attacking the country only grew louder after the Pope urged silence, which Nicaragua’s bishops considered an insult to John Paul.

The incident was followed by deportations of priests by the Sandinista government and visits by Obando y Bravo to the ‘contra’ camps in neighbouring Honduras.

But today, 25 years after the triumph of the revolution, Catholic Church and Sandinista authorities attended mass together in a show of reconciliation, although both sides say it is only for the good of Nicaragua and its people, and for the future of the country.

”Though some people say that we are doing this out of hypocrisy and others say it is to win votes in the (2006) elections, we are doing it from the heart, because we understand that a majority of our people are Catholic,” said Castro.

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