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Why Bill de Blasio's Nicaraguan Work Worries Me

John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Read the first half of Paul Berman's letter to Bill de Blasio here.

Dear Bill de Blasio:

Your Nicaraguan controversy, then. The issue that arose last week, when The New York Times reported on your phase, back in the 1980s and '90s, as a paladin of the political left. The joyous, scalp-hunting responses of your rivals in the New York mayoral race. The insults from Adolfo Carrión, the former Bronx borough president, who accused you, by invoking Animal Farm, of being, in effect, an oinking, totalitarian, barnyard pig! Politics is hell, Mr. de Blasio. Still, the controversy begs for commentary—if only among us old Nicaragua hands.

Your public may dimly recall that Nicaragua used to be ruled by the despotic and kleptomaniacal Somoza family. And the public may recall that, in 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front led a general uprising, overthrew the old dictatorship, established a revolutionary new government, and launched vast new programs for social, cultural, and economic reform. The revolutionary programs attracted overwhelming support among Nicaraguans. Governments around the world, on both sides of the Cold War, offered aid. And yet, within two or three years, the revolutionary programs began to arouse a bit of opposition among Nicaraguans, and then a bit more, until, in some quarters, people began worrying out loud about Sandinismo as a new dictatorship, Cuban style.

A tiny peasant insurgency got underway in the mountains, to which the Reagan Administration responded by fanning the flames, which led to a large and dreadful civil war. Nicaragua's local problems blossomed into an international crisis. And, in the United States and in countries all over the world, many tens of thousands of people mobilized not just to oppose Reagan and his policies but to lend active support and even volunteer labor to the Sandinista Front and its own policies.

The grassroots international support for the Sandinistas was earnest and sincere—although, if I may add, some of it was fanatically arrogant and shrill (which could be said, of course, for some of the anti-Sandinista agitations, as well). Your own part in the larger movement, Mr. de Blasio, was to enlist in a left-wing Catholic organization, which brought you to the town of Masaya, outside of Managua, as an activist volunteer. Your commitment to the Sandinista cause was a widely-shared commitment, in those days, and it suggests that, as a young man, you were bold and adventurous and idealistic, which is a lot more appealing than having been timid, calculating and cynical. I salute you.

Still, something puzzles me about your commitment, and this was your persistence. In 1989, the Sandinistas discovered that communism in Eastern Europe was collapsing, and they could no longer look to the East Bloc for material aid and administrative advice. They needed to shore up their government's legitimacy in the eyes of the democratic countries, and this could be done only by holding a fully and visibly free election. So the Sandinistas held an election, which took place early in 1990. Never for a moment did the Sandinistas imagine that, in a free election, they could possibly lose. One of the national leaders told me that he could hardly imagine why the Nicaraguan people would ever vote against the people—meaning, the Sandinista Front, meaning, himself. The American polls, every one of them, predicted a Sandinista victory. Even the administration of George H. W. Bush expected the Sandinistas to win. 

But when the votes were counted, the Sandinistas and the pollsters and probably the U.S. embassy could hardly believe their eyes. Defeat led to an outpouring of fresh and unflattering information about the Sandinista Front. Mass graves, anguished peasants, furious artisans and workers: such was the news. The Sandinistas themselves, during the brief, post-election period when they still controlled the government, took the opportunity to engage in what was called, by their detractors, who appeared to be legion, the piñata, meaning, a general looting of public property. Here was vivid evidence that kleptomania is not strictly a phenomenon of the political right. And a great many supporters in the United States and other places threw up their hands in despair and moved on to other causes, or else decided to have children or enroll in graduate school. 

Your own response, though, catches my eye. The Times has told us that you kept up your activities in the Sandinistas' principal support group in the United States, the Nicaragua Solidarity Network, and you faithfully subscribed to Barricada (which, I may add, was the most hardline of the Sandinista publications) and, all in all, you stuck to your guns. That was in the 1990s, but I wonder if, in your case, the 1990s ever came to an end. The Times reports on your current views this way: "To this day, he speaks admiringly of the Sandinistas’ campaign, noting advances in literacy and health care. 'They had a youthful energy and idealism mixed with a human ability and practicality that was really inspirational,' he said."

More from the Times: "But Mr. de Blasio said he was also not blind to the party’s imperfections. He said the revolutionary leaders were 'not free enough by any stretch of the imagination,' pointing to their efforts to crack down on dissent by shuttering newspapers and radio stations." So you did, in fact, come up with second thoughts, after a while, and it is unfair of your political rivals and detractors not to acknowledge your retrospective reservations.

And yet, these criticisms of yours, as laid out in the Times, could hardly be more tepid. A good many of the old Sandinistas in Nicaragua, ex-Sandinistas by now, have offered many sterner criticisms, angrier and more sweeping—remorseful reflections on how the Sandinista Front mistreated the poorest of peasants, and not just the most privileged of journalists. I could direct you to still other Nicaraguans, stalwarts of the anti-Somocista cause but not Sandinistas, intelligent people, poets and social scientists, whose criticisms have outdone these embittered ex-Sandinistas ten-fold in emotion and programmatic acuity. I suppose none of this literature would interest you especially. It interests me, though, and it leads me to suspect that, for all your Nicaraguan experiences, you may never have arrived at a proper understanding of the tragedy there, which leads me to worry, in turn, about what sort of mayor you may become. Will you allow me to explain these worries of mine? I will do so by recounting a story that probably you do not know.

It is about Masaya, the town whose Sandinista health campaign you have praised in a recent speech. This happens to be the town where I conducted my own most extensive research as a reporter. You will remember that Masaya is a wonderfully creative artisan center. Some people in Masaya labor on the outlying farms, but a great many other people work at making shoes, hammocks, furniture, and all kinds of things. The people of Masaya are also, as you will recall, famously rebellious. The revolution against the Somoza dictatorship got started in the plazas of that very town as a protest against a teargas attack by Somoza's National Guard on a Catholic protest mass. The Sandinistas were the beneficiaries of that uprising, but not its originators. And when the Sandinistas came to power, they recognized their debt to Masaya, and they lavished special attention on the place, "the cradle of the revolution."

Mr. de Blasio, you are right to have observed "a youthful energy and idealism" among the Sandinistas of the 1980s, and some of that energetic idealism led to indisputably excellent results. The Somoza dictatorship established electric power in Masaya, but the young new Sandinistas extended the grid into the poorer neighborhoods. They paved additional roads. These were big achievements.  

And yet, certain of the other Sandinista programs ran into a problem that you do not mention, brought about by one other Sandinista program, the biggest program of all. This was the goal of subjugating every last corner of Nicaraguan life to the dictates of the Sandinista Front, whose own political structure mandated obedience to the nine uniformed comandantes of the national directorate, whose political structure had been assembled, in turn, by Fidel Castro, their hero. These hierarchical commitments ended up wreaking a devastating effect on every last thing the Sandinistas ever did, including the best things.

The literacy campaign, for instance—which was, after all, the Sandinista Front's single most celebrated program. Any number of idealistic Nicaraguans took part in this program, which sometimes involved going to live in the remotest of villages and, under circumstances of extreme privation, selflessly teaching the poorest of peasants how to read. A wonderful thing! And yet, this campaign, like most of the Sandinista campaigns, set off a wave of fury. The Costa Ricans, next door, offered to provide the textbooks. The Sandinistas preferred to rely on the East Germans, who came up with Spanish-language readers designed to promote reverence for the Sandinista Front and a belief in Sandinista ideology. The literacy campaign turned out to be, in this fashion, an indoctrination campaign, and the indoctrination was badly received—not everywhere, but in some places. One of those places was Masaya.

Mr. de Blasio, please allow me to wonder if, when you were in Masaya, you ever observed one of the student parades. Schoolchildren marched through the streets gaily waving Sandinista flags and banners, and their parents stood on the sidewalks cheering—in some cases, authentically and with gusto. But I can tell you, Mr. de Blasio, that a great many other parents merely pretended to cheer, and, in the privacy of their own thoughts, they seethed at the flags and banners. They pretended to cheer in order to protect their children.

The "popular church" was another project that caught your imagination, and likewise the imagination of many people all over the world. This was the project to construct a new wing of the Catholic Church, devoted to social reform and the defense of the very poor, in the hope of transforming Catholicism as a whole—a vastly attractive project. And yet the "popular church" failed to catch hold among ordinary Nicaraguans, except for a few. The "popular church" mostly served foreigners. The "popular church" clung to life because it served the government, preaching obedience to the state as a Christian virtue. Its doctrine was called "liberation theology," and yet, under the Sandinistas, it amounted to a theology of obedience.

The mainstream church meanwhile retained a genuine popularity. The mainstream church had railed at the Somoza dictatorship in the past, and it railed at the Sandinista government in the 1980s. It came under persecution, after a while. And, in the Catholic barrios of rebellious Masaya, the persecution of the mainstream church went down badly.

Mr. de Blasio, you will remember Masaya's poorest barrio, called Monimbó, where the Chorotega Indians live. You may be aware that, in other parts of Nicaragua, the Indians were the people who most violently despised the Sandinistas. This turned out to be true in Monimbó, as well, even if the Sandinistas constructed electric lines. Monimbó had been the center of the original insurrection against the Somoza dictatorship, and, when the Sandinistas, too, began to persecute the church, the same barrio staged an insurrection against the Sandinistas, as well—a smaller insurrection this time, and yet a popular one.

The Sandinista Ministry of the Interior, under the greatly feared Tomás Borge (who controlled Barricada, by the way, the newspaper you used to read), dispatched troops and tanks to the barrio. The barrio's official Indian leader, the alcalde de la vara, whom the Sandinistas never did succeed in controlling, composed a desperate letter requesting international aid against the Sandinistas, which he sent to the Pope. Only, the letter did no good, and Borge crushed the uprising, not too bloodily. Still, Masaya and especially its Indian barrio went on simmering, year after year, even if foreign visitors sometimes failed to notice anything of the sort.

Sandinista economic policy: the principle disaster. The artisans belonged to cooperatives, sometimes under an explicitly socialist inspiration, and the Sandinistas moved to take over these organizations, too. The Sandinistas set up new state agencies on the basis of advice from the Soviet countries—agencies to buy and sell leather, agencies to sell finished products, and so forth. The agencies proved to be hopelessly inefficient. Agricultural policy was guided in large part by advisors from Bulgaria—which may explain why, Mr. de Blasio, if you ever visited a supermarket in Nicaragua (there were not too many of them, and none in Masaya,) you may have noticed rows of canned Bulgarian products on the otherwise empty shelves.

The new agencies eventually turned out to be corrupt, as well. In Masaya, the artisans were obliged, even so, to perform their business transactions through the official agencies, and were punished if they tried to conduct their work in any other way. A shoemaker who tried to buy leather directly from the tanneries, instead of from the Sandinista agency, would find himself deprived, for a period of one month, of access to any leather at all. People who tried to sell their goods privately could find themselves under arrest. Sandinista police raided the public buses to round up women who were carrying vegetables to the old-fashioned markets.

The crafts and trades in Masaya began to collapse under these pressures. Even so, the workers were required to attend Sandinista rallies and chant slogans. A Sandinista would accompany them to mark down in a notebook exactly who had attended. So the artisans chanted; and they hated. Their hatred was a secret, though. The Sandinistas established Cuban-style committees in every neighborhood, which monitored people's opinions, and anyone who was deemed to be anti-Sandinista was punished with a loss of food rations. After a while the comandantes figured out that neighborhood committees were not too popular, and the committees were disbanded. Unofficial committees—the "ears"—nonetheless kept up the work. 

Mr. de Blasio, in your wanderings around Masaya, you may have noticed an occasional miserable wooden shack that was covered with Sandinista slogans. Here was the home of someone who had run afoul of the neighborhood Sandinistas and had been punished by having his home vandalized. Did someone wish to attend a public rally on behalf of one of the other political parties, which did go on existing, in miniature versions? The rallies took place—and were violently attacked by Sandinista mobs and sometimes by the police.

I could go on. I should go on, and someday I will go on: the full story of that one town and its struggles has never been told, and I possess fat notebooks filled with interviews and documents from all kinds of people, describing their experiences and feelings. The catastrophe that overcame the shoemakers' cooperative. The heartbreaking letter to the Pope: I have a copy of it. A vision of the Virgin Mary! (who did not like the Sandinistas, I can tell you.) The Indian predicament. But, enough.

The interesting question to ask today is this: why did so many well-meaning and well-educated people from other countries, having made their way to towns like Masaya, fail to notice what was going on? How could anyone have arrived in Masaya in the late 1980s and have come away attributing to the Sandinistas, as you did in the Times, "a human ability and practicality that was really inspirational?"

Maybe there is no mystery. The inability to see the reality of political oppression in Nicaragua stemmed from a well-known toxic by-product of a certain kind of political idealism, which is smug arrogance: an old story. The foreign visitors believed sincerely in the superiority of their own ideas, they trembled with indignation at the policies of the Reagan Administration, and their beliefs and their indignation joined together like two cymbals to drown out the whispered anguish of the poor and the persecuted. 

The foreign visitors never noticed that Sandinista claims to democratic socialism were a deception. They never recognized that authentic Sandinista doctrine was a leafy Central American variation on Cuban ideology, military uniforms and top-down obedience and all, which itself traced back to the ice floes of the Soviet tundra. And the visitors never appreciated that, in towns like Masaya, a great many people ended up afraid of foreign visitors—afraid of the wealthy university-educated adventurers from abroad who, in the eyes of ordinary Nicaraguans, were agents of the Sandinista government, no different from the Bulgarian, East German, Cuban and Russian advisors. 

Or maybe the well-meaning visitors lacked for political imagination. Maybe the visitors were unable to recognize that even something as splendid as a health campaign may contain, on its underside, political aspects that are bound, in the long run, to undo any progress in public health or any other social service and reform. It was Masaya's health program that seems to have impressed you especially. But, Mr. de Blasio, what sort of health program would you expect from a government that sometimes chose to deny food rations to its critics? You were impressed by Masaya's health outreach program in 1988, and I do not doubt that you saw many impressive efforts. But were you aware that, in 1988, still another insurrection, or almost-insurrection, against the Sandinistas got underway? Or aware that an overwhelming majority of Nicaragua's doctors fled the country? Or aware that Nicaragua's health reforms depended massively on foreign doctors, who were never going to stay for long? 

Mr. de Blasio, please believe me when I insist that, in those days, I was anti-Reagan. "Stop the GOP!" was one of my essays in the Village Voice in the 1980s, and stopping the GOP still seems to me a good idea. Nonetheless I have to tell you that even the Contra War was more ambiguous than people in the Nicaragua Solidarity Network used to believe. The peasants, too, had their grievances. The rage conceived by peasants in northern Nicaragua for the agricultural advisers from Cuba was something wild. Since you have spoken about the town of Masaya, however, let me share with you one more piquant detail from the period when you were there.

I used to wander the streets, engaging random people in conversation, and some of those conversations took place in Masaya's cattle-flavored odiferous market, where I hope you spent several tens of thousands of Nicaraguan córdobas. (If you did not, I invite you to visit my apartment, within walking distance of your own home, where you and I can peaceably argue while rocking back and forth on granny chairs manufactured in that most creative of towns.)

Like all of the traditional Nicaraguan markets, the one in Masaya was dominated by women, who presided over the stalls. I introduced myself to one after another of those ladies as a journalist of independent opinion from New York. I would inquire about everyone's political opinions. Some of the ladies would respond by affirming support for the Sandinistas—the default position of any number of people in Nicaragua during the period of Sandinista dictatorship. More often the ladies would shoot murderous glances in my direction and snort.

Still, I would go on making jokes and appearing to be in no rush, until, after a while, some of those ladies seemed to figure that I was probably who I said I was, and not a government agent, and they didn't mind a chat. I offer you a characteristic example. Having bantered with me long enough, a market lady, lowering her voice, expressed a few modest reservations about the Sandinistas. Then a few more reservations, until she was whispering.

Finally she explained that, in her estimation, the Sandinistas stood for everything she opposed. In Masaya, a Marxist language of social class made simple sense to a great many people, and the market lady availed herself of this language. She glanced around to see if any of her neighbors were eavesdropping, and then, assured of her own privacy, she whispered that, all in all, the Sandinistas were the enemies of the workers and the peasants. 

I asked in an equally low whisper, "Who is the friend of the workers and the peasants?" 

She said, "No one!" 

I persisted. "Surely someone is the friend of the workers and the peasants. The Catholic Church, maybe?" 

She shook her head. A pause. She gathered her courage. And she whispered: "Ronald Reagan." 

"Reagan?" I said. "Reagan is the friend of the workers and the peasants?"

Solemnly she nodded to tell me, yes, I had heard her right. I was astonished, and, then again, not astonished. To hang around Masaya long enough was to enter into conversations along those lines day after day, in one fashion or another. 

Mr. de Blasio, we left-liberals need to be humble. The grand traditions of democratic socialism in New York City are more than a myth, and fervently I hope that you will carry forward some of those ancient social democratic principles in a version suitably streamlined and corrected for our own era. But there is a left, and a left, and the differences between the one and the other ought to have become obvious ages ago. Adolfo Carríon is not going to win many votes, and yet, in his gibes against you, he has a point. Mr. de Blasio, you will be a better mayor if you recognize his point. You could be, indeed, a great mayor, if only you learned how to conjure the kind of idealism and civic altruism that Michael Bloomberg has never wanted to conjure—and if you learned, as well, how to guard against the ideological manias and arrogant cruelties that sometimes accompany a left-wing disposition. Only, your comments on the Sandinistas of the past make me skeptical.

I urge you, in any case, to pay attention to a remark that Joseph Lhota made last week—namely, that New York City is full of people who have fled from communist dictatorships. These are the New Yorkers who come from the former Soviet Union, from Poland and other East Bloc countries, from Vietnam, China and Cuba. New York has a scattering of Nicaraguans, too, for that matter, some of whom are, of course, Sandinistas, but most of whom are not. These people, the immigrants and refugees, are going to listen to Carrión's accusation about Animal Farm, and, unlike the university-educated American-born sophisticates, they are not going to laugh. They are going to gaze at you in a pensive frame of mind, waiting for your response.


Paul Berman