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Journal of Latin American Studies, February 2018
by Robert J. Sierakowski
University of the West Indies, Mona

Throughout the 1980s, the Sandinista Revolution was a focal point of inspiration for the international Left, as solidarity movements mobilised to support Nicaragua in the face of US-backed military aggression. In 1990, however, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was voted from power by those who had cheered the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship just over a decade earlier. In this study, Dan La Botz turns to Nicaraguan history to understand why the revolution did not live up to its supporters’ expectations and instead permitted the rise of neoliberalism in the 1990s. In explaining these developments, he disagrees with those observers who blame the revolution's fall from grace on unrelenting US political, military and economic pressure, or on the Machiavellian intrigues of President Daniel Ortega. In La Botz's assessment, the Sandinistas’ ‘failure’ was rather the product of a congenital defect found in the organisation's undemocratic nature and its commitment to top-down methods (p. xiv). He argues that a direct line can be drawn from the FSLN's vanguardist origins as a guerrilla army inspired by the Cuban Revolution to the corrupt Sandinista business elite that governs the country today.

To explain ‘what went wrong’, La Botz traces Nicaraguan history from pre-Columbian times to Ortega's latest controversial re-election in 2016. He synthesises the secondary literature on the country, as well as a number of recent memoirs by disillusioned former Sandinista leaders. In doing so, La Botz makes a serious contribution to the literature; there simply is no other comparable English-language narrative of Nicaraguan history that brings the reader up to the present day. In the course of his account, La Botz discusses the Nicaraguan state over the longue durée, considering its evolution during the nineteenth century, the various US military interventions, the Somoza dictatorship, as well as the 1979 Revolution and its aftermath. He also provides accounts of a whole range of important figures in the country's history, including William Walker, Cornelius Vanderbilt, José Santos Zelaya, Augusto César Sandino and Carlos Fonseca, among others. Though the explicit link between these figures and his argument about the revolution's failure is not always clear, La Botz demonstrates an eye for interesting and telling details which have been ignored by other scholars. Where he breaks new ground is in Chapters 8, 9 and 10, which deal with the political degeneration of the FSLN after its fall from power in 1990 and through the period following its return to the presidency in 2006. He describes how the Sandinistas reinvented themselves during those years in the wilderness, eventually coming to form what he calls the ‘conservative, dictatorial and capitalist government’ of Daniel Ortega (p. 368).

La Botz demonstrates that the romantic solidarity literature of the 1980s obscured abuses of power and undemocratic behaviour by the Sandinistas. Indeed, this lack of commitment to democracy by the FSLN helps explain many of their missteps and failure to maintain public support. The author, however, overreaches by elevating this insight to the level of metanarrative, casting the story of the revolution as one of ‘duplicitous’ revolutionaries secretly seeking an orthodox ‘Cuban-style bureaucratic collectivist state’ while publicly proclaiming a sui generis democratic revolution (pp. 175, 243). Though phrased as a critique from the left, La Botz uses terms like ‘Marxist-Leninist’, ‘Communist’, ‘Stalinist’ and ‘Castroite’ so often as terms of derision for the FSLN that it will surely remind some readers of the many reports published by Ronald Reagan's State Department.

While La Botz proudly subtitles his study ‘A Marxist Analysis’, there is surprisingly little attention paid to social class formation, shifts in the country's economic structure, and exactly how these developments were related to the political processes that he describes. Furthermore, while the author promises a ‘socialism from below’ approach (p. xxi), the study is largely missing the voices, achievements and experiences of the countless regular Nicaraguans who rose up in the 1978–9 insurrection and later defended the revolution's achievements. For example, at various moments in the text, we see hints of the FSLN's militant working class and campesino grassroots base bubbling up from below in the post-1990 period (see pp. 257, 266–8, 272, 340), and yet this goes nearly unremarked and attention remains solely on the leadership. In the Introduction, he explains that Nicaragua is studied as a ‘particular version of what happened in so many Third World or developing nations’ during the twentieth century (p. 2). The implicit argument is that the failure of countless national liberation movements to achieve almost utopian aims was largely the result of nationalist leaders’ mistaken ideology, rather than the overwhelming economic and geopolitical structural constraints they faced in their efforts.

The account concludes with a counterfactual and somewhat ahistorical set of suggestions as to the plan La Botz feels that the FSLN should have followed beginning in the 1960s. This makes for strange reading, for, as he notes earlier in the text, the Sandinistas’ guerrilla strategy ‘was typical of what was happening throughout Latin America … but everywhere else it was a disaster and only in Nicaragua was it successful’ (p. 109). The difficulty with this work's narrative structure, though, is that by locating ‘what went wrong’ well prior to the revolution itself, there can be no turning point at which this ‘successful’ revolution was betrayed or its leaders turned their back on its principles. Thus, while La Botz raises vital criticisms of the Sandinista governments both of the 1980s and of today, the study ends up painting an unnecessarily dreary vision of Nicaragua's historical trajectory.

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