The Sandinistas' Faithful Pilgrims
by Robert A. Sirico
March 13, 1990
The story behind the story of the crushing defeat of the Sandinistas is as interesting as the upset itself. Why has this democratic victory surprised so many in the U.S., notably in the religious community?
The answer lies in part in the religious press, which all too frequently towed the Sandinista line imported by liberal pilgrims who had gone to Managua for confirmation of their faith in the revolution. Turn to the classified section of most U.S. religious periodicals. You will find evidence of a cottage industry dedicated to sending North Americans to Central America to see for themselves the degree of support for the revolution.
The pages of the National Catholic Reporter provide a good example. Rosemary Radford Ruether, a feminist theologian who writes frequently for the Reporter, returned from Nicaruaga breathless at the “riot of political liberty” she observed there (Feb. 23). “No need to worry about the names or ideas being overheard,” she reported. The Nicaraguans interviewed by the pollsters clearly didn’t share this opinion. Neither did the bishop I spend an evening with in Managua in January. As we sat talking in his rectory, he literally looked over his shoulder before mildly criticizing the government.
Based on this and other discussions I had during my stay in Nicaragua, it was no surprise to me that the Sandinistas were routed. When I returned to the U.S. I publicly predicted that if the elections were free and secret, as it appears they would be, the Sandinistas would be turned out because they did not enjoy general support. When I stated this at a meeting of people interested in Central America, some other veterans of Nicaraguan field trips disagreed. My contention was that they were naïve, if well-intentioned, pilgrims who went supporting the revolution, and failed to notice that somewhere along the line it had been co-opted. They replied that they were sure they had “been in touch with the people.” That was on Feb. 14.
This grand hypothesis was slain by one ugly little fact: the events of Feb. 25. To understand the depth of voters’ rejection of the Sandinistas is not enough to say that Violetta Chamorro received 55% of the vote. One must add to this number the 5% who voted for minor candidates and put on top of that an additional 10% or so for those who voted with their feet by leaving the country before the election and who were not allowed to vote by absentee ballot. Consider also that, given the context of the fear that distorted the polls, of the 40% who did vote for the Sandinistas, a portion of that number could be considered soft, especially where people worked for the government.
This all amounts to an overwhelming rejection. Yet everyone was so surprised: the media, the pollsters, the religious community and the Sandinistas.
Even the U.S. administration, days before the election, began to prepare for a Sandinista victory. An awkward question thus arises: If the administration seriously thought the Sandinistas were popular enough to survive a free vote, why did it maintain trade sanctions and support the Contras?
Conservatives too have set themselves up for criticism. While supporting an economic embargo against Nicaragua in the hope of bringing pressure to bear on the government for a more open and free society, they also opposed sanctions against South Africa arguing (correctly, I believe) that an economic embargo would hurt the very people it is designed to help.
It is true that the Contra war and the economic boycott harmed the Nicaraguan economy. Unfortunately this allows the Sandinistas to excuse their mismanagement of the economy and obscure the fundamental reason for their rejection. Nicaraguans rejected them for the same reason Eastern Europeans rejected communist regimes: The Sandinistas socialized the economy, systematically drove out enterprise, and curtailed civil liberties. They created a hostile environment for the only mechanism known to produce wealth: the free market. This did not harm just big landowning oligarchs whose holdings were questionable even from a capitalistic frame of reference. Small-businessmen, professionals, and a host of would-be entrepreneurs were driven out as well.
The healing of Nicaragua is only just commencing. Much must be done to create a climate of liberty and stability. One hopes that this will be done without control from outside powers. It is clear, however, that these war-torn, noble and hospitable people have, like their Eastern European counterparts, taken the first fledging steps in this direction.