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Making Sense of Bernie’s Sandinista Sympathies

Bernie Sanders's presence at a revolutionary rally in 1985 needs to be evaluated in light of what was actually happening in Nicaragua and the U.S. in the 1980s.

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Was Bernie Sanders inappropriately, even disloyally, supportive of the Nicaraguan Sandinista government 34 years ago? Sanders, like many liberals and leftists, opposed the United States’ support for the hard-right Contras rebelling against the revolutionary Sandinista government in the 1980s. Two weeks ago, a New York Times report drew particular attention to his attendance at a 1985 Sandinista rally in Managua, in which people chanted “Aquí, allá el Yanqui morirá” [here and there the Yankee will die]. “Do you think if you had heard that directly, you would have stayed at the rally?” reporter Sydney Ember asked him in a follow up interview. She also questioned his support for Daniel Ortega who led the Sandinista revolution in the 80s, and now as Nicaragua’s current president is highly authoritarian and faces widespread opposition: “Do you believe you had an accurate view of President Ortega at the time?” His responses have drawn criticism. “Sanders went well beyond mere opposition to funding the war,” Jonathan Chait subsequently wrote at New York magazine. “This is all highly relevant to his presidential campaign.” 

How one views this controversy depends mainly on one’s understanding of Nicaragua in the 1980s. Take, for example, “Aquí, allá Yanqui morirá.” The slogan had a specific meaning at the time. The crowd chanted it defensively as a warning against a possible invasion by U.S. troops, an option that was always on the Pentagon’s table. Despite the lens through which today’s Americans are likely to read it, the slogan was not at all equivalent to “Death to Americans” shouted by Al Qaeda supporters, nor was it meant as a statement of intent, as evidenced by the fact that thousands of Americans volunteered in Nicaragua during the 1980s without being harmed by Nicaraguan citizens or government authorities. (By contrast, the U.S.-supported Contra in their widespread campaign to execute Sandinista officials and supporters did kill American volunteer Benjamin Linder.)

It’s important to evaluate Sanders’s support for Ortega in the context of the 1980s, as well. Ortega’s regime today is certainly dictatorial and deplorable. But was that an accurate characterization at the time? The Sandinistas, after all, led the overthrow of a 43-year dictatorship. Most Nicaraguans at that point, including Sandinistas, wanted the new society to be free. During the mid 1980s I was doing dissertation historical research in the northwestern region of Chinandega, Nicaragua. I spent most of my time interviewing peasants in relatively remote areas and to get to their homes I often traveled on crowded buses also carrying  off-duty police and soldiers. I can remember on several occasions hearing passengers casually curse the Sandinista government right in front of a policeman or a soldier. Neither the state agents nor the passengers ever showed the slightest concern. This bore little resemblance to the Reagan administration and media portrayal of a totalitarian society—although, to be sure, there were numerous examples of arbitrary repression in the war zones of Central and the Atlantic Coast regions of Nicaragua.

The U.S. media during the 1980s was mainly interested in Nicaragua within a Cold War frame. I recall a conversation in 1983 with a brilliant and creative former classmate of mine who was reporting for a major American daily. She, or possibly her editor, seemed only interested in a putative shipment of Soviet fighter jets rather than the major social transformation taking place in the western countryside. Under the Sandinista government in this period, many peasants participated actively in grassroots organizations that were rooted in decades of peasant and rural worker mobilizations in demand of land and living wages. Their antagonists, the agrarian elite, had depended for decades on the repressive force of the U.S.-equipped National Guard, intended as a bulwark against communism. “Before, the rich ruled and we had to obey,” one peasant told me. “Now it’s our turn to speak and that’s why they’re so pissed off.”* Along with the legacy of their defeat of Somoza’s National Guard in 1979, the Sandinistas presided over striking improvements in health and education during the early years of the revolution. By 1981, the illiteracy rate had dropped from over 50 percent to under 15 percent. By 1986, the infant mortality had dropped from 120 per 1,000 live births to 65. Such testimonials and figures usually did not make it into the news in the U.S.

The Sandinista Revolution was highly contradictory, at once emancipatory and repressive. In addition to stimulating positive reforms and social mobilization, the Sandinistas also instituted some truly misguided policies, such as mandating that all peasants sell their produce to a state distribution agency. Similarly, they often created state collective farms despite peasant desires for individual plots. But the revolutionary government did respond to popular protest, too, eliminating the distribution center and, by 1985, distributing significant portions of state-owned property to peasants. Such responses did not fit into the U.S. narrative about a “communist dictatorship.”

The Sandinistas also won elections in 1984 that most European observers deemed fair and honest. The Sandinistas won 67 percent of the vote in a six-party race, with some 25 percent abstentions, many from Christian evangelicals. (In our rural neighborhood, no pressure was put on those who had stated such an intention to abstain.) However, the Reagan administration and many Democrats delegitimized the elections, largely based on a complicated sequence of events involving the early opposition candidate Arturo Cruz, who withdrew from the race after some Sandinista supporters threw rocks at his rallies. In a subsequent meeting in Rio with one of the Sandinista leaders, Cruz ironed out campaign ground rules that would ensure his participation. The Sandinista leader, Bayardo Arce, was prepared to sign on behalf of the government. Before signing the document, Cruz had to make a phone call and when he returned to the table, he withdrew his support for the pact and from the electoral process, thus providing critical evidence for the illegitimacy of the elections.

At the time, even the U.S. ambassador recognized that the Sandinistas still enjoyed wide popular support. Even after the Contra War had savaged the economy and ruined countless families, the Sandinistas still garnered over 40 percent of the vote in 1990 when they lost to an opposition coalition. They then peacefully ceded power.

These qualities of the Sandinista government went largely, but not entirely, unrecognized in U.S. media at the time, and have remained only at the fringes of American awareness since. Bernie Sanders neither spoke Spanish nor spent much time in Nicaragua, and thus failed to grasp the complexity and the contradictions of the revolution. He did, however, recognize that after more than seventy years of U.S. direct and indirect interventions in Nicaraguan political affairs, the Sandinistas had earned the right to chart their own course. When The New York Times asked Sanders about whether he’d heard the “Yanqui” chant at the 1985 rally, his answer—”They were fighting against American—Huh huh—yes, what is your point?” he said, before pointing to American intervention in Chile—may not have been optimally forthright and elegant. But the context he was trying to point to is relevant. Successful U.S. attempts to undermine the democratically elected Allende in the early 1970s, and our decisive role in overthrowing the democratically elected Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954, conditioned the historical moment he witnessed in in the Managua plaza. Once again, the United States had embarked on a bloody effort to overthrow a democratically elected government. This government had tried to learn the lessons of the previous “Yanqui” interventions.

There were ample reasons, during the final stages of the Cold War, to oppose the U.S.-sponsored attack on the Nicaraguan government. And, of course, one did not need to support the Sandinistas, as Sanders largely did, to do so. But blindly accepting American propaganda about the revolutionary government obscured the real, if limited, grassroots democratic advances and efforts to improve the quality of formerly impoverished and violently repressed lives. Even if Sanders did not fully understand Nicaragua—and who did?—and did not sufficiently criticize the revolution’s flaws, more than anything he refused to accept another chapter in a history of U.S. interventions in Latin America that have besmirched our democratic ideals and reputation. In that sense, his actions and comments could be construed not as disloyal, but perhaps even as patriotic.    

*This translation has been updated.