Sandino and a Sandinista Speaks
- Below you will find two documents, separated by many decades in time but united in some common themes and perspectives. Look for similarities in the two views, one from the 1930s, the other from the 1970s.
First Excerpt from Sandino: The Testimony of a Nicaraguan Patriot 1921-1934. A conversation between Augusto César Sandino and his friend José Román. Sandino fought against US Marines occupying Nicaragua from 1926 through 1933. Anastasio Somoza had Sandino assassinated in 1934. The two men (Sandino in on right) are shown in the photo to the right. Later, beginning in 1961, Nicaraguans would draw inspiration from Sandino and again organize an armed struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. That movement would succeed in September 1979 in overthrowing the dictatorship.
Listen, Román, I've been in this place many times before, but never under
these conditions. The night so clear, the beauty and calm of the place,
with a full moon that makes the waters of this millenial river sparkle,
and especially without the shocking experiences of the war. I want to
take advantage of the serene beauty of the landscape and this unique and
indescribable tranquility to talk to you about some personal and sentimental
things that, though they don't form part of our military campaign, I regard,
in fact, as fundamental aspects of our struggle, which will help you to
understand the essence of that struggle and the future of Nicaragua. .
. . . there's something that troubles me even more than being a father, and that's the future of Nicaragua and my crusade, because even though the United States might have had to accept their military defeat, which to a certain extent gives some prestige to their new government, they won't so easily accept a political defeat. Of that I'm absolutely certain. I don't know in what form they will make their move, but I know that they can count on very able and subtle politicians and that ours are very corrupt, and unfortunately, as you know, politics is not my field. Besides, the United States has a lot of money that they very well know how to use, and in politics money is a very powerful weapon. You saw how they bought Moncada and all the generals and officers and finally all the soldiers, except ours, for ten dollars a head.
- I've had several proposals, which, if I had accepted them, would have given
me ample means to continue the war and even take power in Nicaragua, but
I knew that once the marines had withdrawn it would have been unworthy
on my part to spill more of the blood of our brothers. Especially since
Dr. Sacasa is an honest man whom I greatly admire and trust completely.
Precisely to avoid intrigues and political pressures, I unilaterally accelerated
the signing of the peace agreement.
I've thought a lot about this. For quite a bit longer than a year now, knowing that our guerrilla army was already invincible, I realized that eventually the marines would have to leave and we would be left face to face with the National Guard, an army against which our struggle isn't directed and against which we don't have any quarrel, except that I question its constitutionality and its loyalty to Nicaragua. But the more I've thought and pondered about how to avoid the dangers that such a situation implies for Nicaragua, I've come to the conclusion that it's not my task or the task of my army to try to solve a problem that doesn't yet exist except in an embryonic form. Abortion, in addition to being immoral, is also dangerous.
Look, Román, the long years of struggle, fighting under such unfavorable conditions and upholding an ideal and the country's honorable name, maybe all this is very glorious, but it's also an enormous responsibility. The purity of the cause has to be maintained at all costs. The solitude in the mountains, bearing the full weight of the campaign on my shoulders, the endless nights of vigilance and waiting, all this gives a man an extra sense through which all things acquire an added dimension, and the capacity for judgment becomes more serene. The stillness and the enormous loneliness of a man who has nobody to turn to to make the latest decisions, decisions that must be made, bring him in contact with something outside his own being. Beyond everything human! It's on the basis of these extraordinary experiences and these deep meditations, these profound thoughts, that I know positively, without any doubt whatever, that the rest of my life will be spent in these mountains among their humble inhabitants[. . . .]
- It's true, poor Nicaragua has been a country damned by God[. . . .] And, frankly speaking, Nicaragua was a g-------n country for the marines, for the secretary of state, Mr. Stimpson, for Admiral Sellers, for General Logan Feland, for Mr. Knox, for President Hoover. And yet, I say this from the heart, the marines weren't to blame, I'm the first to recognize this, because like my friend Montenegro whom I spoke to you about, they only came here obeying orders. If the people of the United States had seen their boys sadly dying, without glory, without honors, and without knowing why, the North American people never would have allowed those brave boys to come here to soil their uniforms along with the prestige of that great nation in the jungles and swamps of Nicaragua[. . . .]
- As I told you before, with the expulsion of the marines from Nicaragua, the problems of the nation haven't ended. There are many dangers, inside and outside the country. This, because the Americans, though they could easily grant themselves the luxury of converting a defeat into an act of generosity toward a small country, into an act of wisdom, by recognizing their mistake and withdrawing their troops, lack the liberality of spirit required to recognize the rights of others above their own commercial ambitions, and they won't stop intriguing and manipulating for the purpose of replacing armed intervention with another kind of intervention so subtle that it can't be fought with weapons, but only with the dignity and honesty of our politicians, something that now exists only to the smallest degree. This is the main internal danger, and it constitutes a condition that only in the very long term and at the cost of great sacrifices can be overcome.
- This has already been said on another occasion, and maybe in other words, but allow me to repeat it because it's something I consider of fundamental importance for the future of Nicaragua. I'm absolutely convinced that there is no seed that won't grow if planted in good soil. There's no one in the world who can have any doubt about the excellence of the seed that we have planted, and I don't have the slightest doubt that the people of Nicaragua are a fertile and generous soil, and let it be known that this seed, though it will have to be sprinkled with abundant tears and the blood of our people, one day, maybe far off in the future, will unexpectedly and irresistibly bear fruit, and the longer the period of germination, the more beautiful that fruit will be. Never lose faith. You will see it![. . .]
- It's clear [. . .] that this work [improving the lives of the Nicaraguan Indians] is difficult, but just to infuse them with dreams, with expectations, and the most elementary notions of morality and hygiene would be to achieve a great victory. There are thousands and thousands of Indians on this Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and in its river valleys, including Zumos, Zambos, Miskitos, and Caribs. Of course no official census exists, but with the help of Colonel Rivera I've been able to estimate that all together there are more than a hundred thousand. I came here by chance during my war, and I became conscious of our reality, because this is also Nicaragua, and I made myself the firm promise that as soon as the war for independence had come to an end, instead of accepting the fine invitations I have to Paris, Buenos Aires, and Mexico, where I would only go to show myself off like some movie star, tango singer, politician or showcase ambassador, instead of doing that, I would stay here on the Coco River. The wildest but most beautiful part of our country.
- To free it from the barbarism into which exploitation has submerged it, first feudal-colonial and now capitalist, to do whatever is possible to civilize these poor Indians who are the marrow of our race. And as you can see, my work is beginning to bear fruit. Let's hope that at least I will leave this work well started, so that our future generations and future governments will devote themselves of Nicaragua. This virgin region comprises much more than half of our national territory, and merely by civilizing it Nicaragua can be made into a worthy and respected country.
- Román, listen to me well because you're young. Listen to these words because they can turn out to be prophetic. I will not leave here. I know that because of my ideas they will kill me. Not the marines, but the Nicaraguans! I know this but it doesn't matter to me, because this is my fate, the same fate that brought me here. At least I will leave the seed planted, and some day it will bear fruit.
Fire from the Mountain
The Making of a Sandinista by Omar Cabezas
Omar Cabezas [shown in the photo at the right] grew up in a poor family
in Nicaragua. As a student in Nicaragua in the 1970s, young Cabezas began
working against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. After a few years
of student activism, he went to the mountains of northern Nicaragua to
became a guerrilla fighter for the FSLN, Sandinista Front for National
Liberation. He rose to become a comandante and later cabinet member of
the Sandinista government. The following excerpts from his memoir, "Fire
from the Mountain," offer clear insights into why someone takes up arms
to fight political repression. He also makes clear the difficulties that
[Student activist] "We had to steal from the university, from the different administrative offices. Their huge handbags of the compañeras [women] were notorious for all the stuff we could toss into them: staples, reams of paper, poster crayons. We swiped glue, staples; anything we could get our hands on, we stole. Can you imagine our joy when suddenly we had 200 pesos at our disposal to buy ten cans of spray pain to make posters and banners? Or to pain our slogans on the walls of the university and the city?
I remember a political debate at the university. I joined one of the
discussion circles that had formed, and Leonel was at the center of
the debate. Leonel was Marxist-Leninist and anti-clerical. I remember
what he said the the group of compañeros [comrades] that had gathered
around to talk. He spoke with a frown: "We have to be like Che [Guevara,
Argentine-born revolutionary who fought with Castro in Cuba]. . . be
like Che. . . be like Che. . . ." I came away from the university with
that phrase running over and over in my mind like a tape recording.
I can still see Leonel's gestures, the expression on his face, the determined
way he spoke those worlds. "To be like Che. . . to be like Che." Of
course I never imagined what influence it would have on my later, because,
in fact, it was only later that I started studying Che. [You may wish
to read a brief excerpt from Che Guevara's
Manual of Guerrilla Warfare. For reference the entire
Manual of Guerrilla Warfare is also accessible online.]
When I left for the mountains my morale was extraordinary. Let's say my batteries were fully charged by everything I've just mentioned. I had an enormous amount of political work behind me, plus the intimate satisfaction of having added my small spark to the great fire that was now glimmering on the horizon of the cities. That was one of the main things that kept me from thinking of deserting when I first got to the mountains. It's a terrible shock to be plopped suddenly into that environment, especially when you're not prepared for it physically. I'd say we weren't prepared physically or mentally. Even though we'd read The Diary of Che [his failed attempt to take revolution to the Bolivian mountains] and writings on Vietnam and the Chinese revolution, a whole string of accounts, of works on the guerrilla movements of Latin America and elsewhere, we only had a general idea; we had no sense of the concrete reality.
- When I left for the mountains I knew the Frente ["front," other Sandinista supporters] was behind me, as Frente, as a front. I wasn't going alone. I knew when I left Subtiava a whole generation of students was behind me, but more important--and here I may be guilty of lack of modesty--a generation of students that in some way bore the seal of my own combat. This was the student movement that later spread throughout the country. For the students we recruited in León went back to their own provinces and initiated work in the barrios [poor neighborhoods]. They were the first contacts of the regional underground of the FLSN.
[joining the FSLN guerrilla fighters in the mountain at age 22; significance
of the mountain] Even after six years of above-ground work, when I left
for the mountain I went with the idea that the mountain was a tremendous
power. We had this myth of the compañeros in the mountains, the mysterious,
the unknown, where Modesto was, there at the top. And in the city both
the people in the underground and those of working legally always talked
about the mountain as a sort of mythical force. It was where our power
was, and our arms, and the best men; it was our indestructibility, our
guarantee of a future, the ballast that would keep us from going under
in the dictatorship; it was our determination to fight to the end, the
certainty that life must change, that Somoza must no go on polluting
every aspect of existence.
The mountain was our refusal to belief that the Guard [Somoza's military, the National Guard] was invincible. And you were right o the verge of demoralization when you got into the mountains and found nobody there but Modesto with fifteen other men divided into little groups. Fifteen or who the hell knows how many--what I do know is that there couldn't have been more than 20 guerrillas in the mountains at that time. It made you want to turn right around and go back. . . . This is the worst decision I've ever made in my life. You feel you've started out on something that has no future.
[first march through the mountains] You can't see in the mountains. Everything is dark at first, then gradually you start seeing like a cat. You start to differentiate among the dark shapes to make out the lay of the land. But at first it all looked the same. We sloshed through the gullies, almost knee-deep in water. I didn't know whether to stop and dump the water out of my shoes or what. "Brother, the water. . . " "No, brothers, we've got to hurry or we'll get left behind."
- The campesinos [country people who served as their guides] are very quick, and on top of that suspicious of city people. I didn't let on, but I wanted to find out when we were going to come out of that hell we were marching through. That poison ivy had just about done me in. By dawn I was half-covered with mud, soaked to the skin, my hands were totally screwed, and we were started. We had already gone two nights with no sleep and about 24 hours with no food; we had no idea, we could never have guessed what was in store for us. Had we known we could have stuffed ourselves with some huge meals before starting out.
- I didn't understand why the campesino was so obsessed about our not breaking the brush. "Compa, [short for compañero, comrade] don't crush the grasses; Compa, don't snap that branch." At first I thought it was the campesino's love to nature. We, too, theoretically respected nature; we were against all the awful things that had happened in León with the problem of the dust storms, because the whole west had been stripped of trees to grow cotton. But it seemed to me to be overdoing it in the middle of an ocean of vegetation to be saying, "Compa, don't nick the trees with your machete." But these were the little things that could give us away.
- I realized that my shells [for his shotgun] had slipped out of my kerchief--had been dropping out along the way--because a campesino had found some of them. "Go find those bullets, they could give us away," the campesino said. "But they're buried in the mud," I protested. "No, compa, you'd better get going." We noticed that our guide was tromping along very easily there ahead of us. He wasn't covered with mud, except for his boots. He pulled out a spotless kerchief and mopped the sweat from his face, while my kerchief was sopping with mud. I had mud on my hair, on my face, everywhere. Before we were marching through brush, now we were marching through mud. When you tried to get a footing on those jagged waves of ground, you lost your balance, your bag swung to one side, and bang! it knocked you down.
- We recovered from our blisters, and for the first time in three days I took a s--- [relieved his bowels.] "I'm going to s---," I said. "You know how to do it?" "How?" "Take a machete, dig a hole, use it, and when you're finished, cover it with dirt and then with leaves, so there's no trace." This is basic security for the guerrilla. "And how do I wipe myself?" "With leaves, you wipe yourself with leaves. You take a handful of leaves and wipe yourself.' [opps, the first time Cabezas did not use enough leaves]
- In Waslala, there are mosquitoes all day long, mosquitoes everywhere, and it's ten times worse at night--gnats, bocones, all kinds of mosquitoes and insects. You can't sleep because they get in your blanket, and you have to make a bed of embers under your hammock, a little fire of smoldering sticks to create smoke. You're in your hammock with that constant bbzzzzzz in your ears. There's a tiny insect that harasses you all day [called "no see-ums" in the Caribbean], then at night it slips through the weave of your hammock or blanket and keeps right on biting you when you're lying down. It's a nightmare; it's horrible you can't sleep in peace."
- [what it takes to become a guerrilla fighter] I've often said this in the guerrilla war--after months of being in, when you've adapted and been transformed into a guerrilla, the hardest thing isn't the nightmare of the trail, or the horrible things about the mountains; it's not the torture of lack of food or having the enemy always on your track; it's not going about filthy and stinking, or being constantly wet. It's the loneliness. Nothing is as rough as the loneliness. Loneliness is starting to forget the sounds of cars, the longing at night for electric lights, the longing for colors, because the mountain dresses only in green or dark colors. . . . Longing for your favorite songs, longing for a woman, longing for sex. Longing to see your family, your mother, your brothers, your compañeros from school. . . . You long for the company of all those things, but you can't have them; it's a loneliness forced on you against your will. You can't leave the guerrilla war. Because you've come to fight, which has been the great decision of your life.
- But gradually you are mastering the environment, learning to march. Your legs are getting stronger. You learn how to swing a machete. And as time passes your hair starts to get long. I sprouted a mustache in the mountains. Washing so little roughens your skin. Over long periods of time your cuts and scratches heal, and new ones come to take their place, until your hands and your arms are a different color. Calluses form on your hands. And you belch right in front of everyone. . . . It's as if very gradually this mass of men was becoming one more element, a few more creatures of the mountain--intelligent, yes, but like animals, and even worse, like inhibited animals.
- This, in a way, was what helped to forge in each of us the steel that was needed to overthrow the dictatorship. Our skin was weathering, the look in your eyes hardening, our eyesight sharpening, our sense of smell keener. Our reflexes--we moved like animals. Our thoughts were hardening, our hearing was more acute, we were starting to take on the same hardness as the jungle, the hardness of animals; we were growing a half-human, half-animal hide. . . . And so a spirit was forged that enabled us to endure all the mental and physical hardship.
- That is why we said that the genesis of the new man was in the FSLN. The new man began to be born with fungus infections and with his feet oozing worms; the new man began to be born with loneliness and eaten alive by mosquitoes; he began to be born stinking. That's the outer part, because inside, by dint of violent shocks day after day, the new man was being born with the freshness of the mountains. A man--it might seem incredible--a tender man who sacrifices himself for others, a man who gives everything for others, who suffers when others suffer and who also laughs when others laugh. The new man began to be born and to acquire a whole series of values, discovering these values, and cherishing them and cultivating them in his inner self.
- I kept thinking of Che, of Che's new man, and it hit me then--the enormity of what Che meant when he talked about the new man: the man who gives more to others than the average man is able to give. But at the cost of sacrifices. At the cost of the destruction of his faults, of his vices. We just stared, convinced that Tello was right. That bastard had hit us in our weak spot. Because we all wanted to be like Che, like Julio Buitrago [famous FSLN fighter killed by the National Guard].
- Eventually your head stops spinning. Those feelings [of doubt] subside, and you start to reflect maturely, calmly. You are saved by the fact that the FSLN inculcated in us a historical will, an infinite, boundless stubbornness. And all at once your brain starts to function. Okay, thousands of people may die, but you have to keep on fighting to bring down the enemy. Because to be against the Guard, even though you may die--to be a guerrilla fighter--is an absolutely honorable stand. If you die, you die with honor. Your death is in itself a protest.
- [political work with the campesinos] They left me alone there to set up a network of collaborators in the zone, to form a chain from there all the way up to Tello's group in Zinica. When I arrived, they introduced me to Martha, Apolonio's compañera; I met the little kids; well, I hardly knew were to begin. Because I didn't have any experience in that sort of work. My experience was with the construction workers of León, with our supporters in León, barrio work, but never with campesinos where I hadn't mastered the terrain, in the sense of knowing how to get from one place to another on my own.
- "Hombre, compa, it can't be true, can it, that the earth is round and revolves?" Which is what I had said to her innocently. She just stared at me, unbelieving, then burst out laughing in my face. "Of course, it's true," I repeated. "The earth is round and revolves." She just stared; she really didn't know the earth was round and revolved. Then she turned serious. "Compa, you're not making fun of me, are you?" [PS: Your instructor watched the first moonwalk in 1969 on television in the mountains of Puerto Rico. I was in a Peace Corps training camp, not a guerrilla camp! Puerto Rican campesinos, who watched with us, howled with laughter at our gullibility. Of course, they said, the whole thing had been faked!]
- In the little shacks at night, over one black coffee after another, in conversation after conversation, we discussed their financial troubles, and these conversations deepened our friendship. When I became friends with someone, I always wanted that relationship to develop into something that had political content, and vice versa--I always tried to build a political connection into a solid personal friendship.
- The first thing I would ask was if they owned the land they lived on, and the answer was always no, it belong to the "rich folk." Or they would laugh, as if making a joke, or they would hang their heads. Because, for the campesinos, the land was a dream. A dream of their fathers, a dream of their fathers' grandfathers. . . . Naturally we steered our political discussions toward the reason the land was not theirs.
- They had a good name for that process [of losing the land.] "They corralled us," they would say. They had been corralled, cut back, surrounded with barbed wire. And they ended up working the landowner's land and tending his cattle. And the campesinos who had been "corralled" had to grow their own crops on land lent them by the local landowners. In the time they had left, they would cultivate a bit of ground they would rent from the landowner. And when the harvest came, they had to sell it to the same owners. And naturally, you had to buy your salt, your filing tools, your machetes, your aspirin and other pills from the commissary the landowner operate right there.
- We never promised an agrarian reform to the campesinos, never! We invited them to struggle and to fight for agrarian reform. We invited them to fight for the land.
- [Conclusion: Linking Sandino's struggle of the 1920s-30s with the FSLN] They [Nicaraguan campesinos who helped Sandino] had a Sandinista history, a history of rebellion against exploitation, against North American domination. They interpreted rebellion in a primitive, gut-level way; their rebellion was historical and came out of their fight against the Yankee occupation. . . . The Sandinistas were isolated after the death of [Augusto César] Sandino [murdered by the first Somoza in 1934], and they started educating their children in that tradition, encouraging that feeling against the occupying Yankees who had invaded and were humiliating us. Poor, barefoot people, but with an extraordinary sense of national dignity, with a consciousness of national sovereignty. That, in essence, was the reality.
realized that the Frente Sandinista was forging a tremendous revolutionary
determination in its militants, a tremendous stubbornness, a tremendous
sense of dignity and combativeness. But these principles were not new;
the FLSN had not invented them. This was our historical patrimony, a treasure
we were going to bring to light again. And that was the greatest insight
and accomplishment of Carlos Fonseca [FSLN founder, shown at left]: he
took back that history; he took possession of that determination, of that
intransigence born of dignity and of sovereignty. What the contemporary
FSLN was doing with us and what we were doing with the newer people was
nothing more than giving a new context to that historical tradition, that
determination, that sense of dignity.
- I embraced Don Leandro [an old man who had fought for Sandino] with a shudder of joy and of emotion. I felt that my feet were solidly planted on the ground; I wasn't in the air. Not only was I the child of an elaborate theory, but also I was walking on something concrete; I was rooted in the earth, attached to the soil, to history. I felt invincible. When we said goodbye, I help out my hand to Don Leandro. He gave me his hand, and I remember I took it in both of mine and pressed it tightly. "We'll be seeing each other soon," I said. And he answered, "Yes, I'm old now, but remember, here are all my sons."