9. Don’t Let The Bastards (Get You Down)
Written & performed by Kris Kristofferson
From the album Third World Warrior (Mercury, USA 1990)



Righteous killing in the name of freedom
We’ve been down that sorry road before
They let us hang around a little longer than they should have
And it’s too late to fool us anymore

We’ve seen the ones who killed the ones with vision
Cold-blooded murder right before your eyes
Today they hold the power and the money and the guns
It’s getting hard to listen to their lies.

And I’ve just got to wonder what my daddy would’ve done
If he’d seen the way they turned his dream around
I’ve got to go by what he told me, try to tell the truth
And stand your ground

Mining roads
Killing farmers
Burning down schools full of children
Fighting communism

And I’ve just got to wonder what my daddy would’ve done
If he’d seen the way they turned his dream around
I’ve got to go by what he told me, try to tell the truth
And stand your ground

Live acoustic version from Kristofferson’s show in Kristiansand, Norway, June 21, 2006. Watch the video at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW49rBZIRUk


The world, during and after the song: Of land, bastards, and promises

One. Of land…

I remember Larry King on CNN had me on the programme once when I came back from Nicaragua, when I was talking to him about the Sandinista’s commitment to free health, free education, land reform, and it was the land reform which put us in the cross hairs of the American foreign policy.’ Kris Kristofferson, interviewed by Freemuse, Oslo, Norway, 31 March 2008.

And now, from the February 1986 edition of the New Internationalist, we bring you the following:

NICARAGUA Reforming the countryside

The promised land

Nicaragua is crucially dependent on agriculture – and particularly on cash crops like cotton. This demands massive doses of pesticides. So the Government also has to be concerned about the health impact on the farmers who use them. A group of internacionalistas is travelling around to warn workers of the dangers.

Donald Cole, a Canadian doctor, demonstrates the protective gear for farmers spraying pesticides. Internacionalistas like Donald are usually here precisely because they support the kind of changes that are taking place – ‘the process’ as it is often called. So they accept responsibilities above and beyond the technical job at hand. That might mean acting as a link between this new Nicaragua and their home country – it can also involve giving rides to stray visitors.

Today we’re headed up the west coast on the road between Leon and Chinandega. Roadside placards proclaim the sixth harvest of the local farming co-operatives. The Pacific coast has prime agricultural land given over to sugar and cotton – on plantations which were originally created by the violent eviction of many peasant farmers in the 1950s and 1960s.

Today the Sandinista government, desperate for foreign exchange, is also keen on cash crops. That’s why their land reform programme has been so cautious: they need the output of the ‘grand bourgeoisie’, the large-scale producers, if exports are to be maximised. And those who have co-operated, the ‘patriotic producers’, have been well rewarded, making profits of around 30 per cent by selling to the State at guaranteed prices – the Government being prepared to bear the losses of selling on a depressed world market just to keep the dollars flowing in.’

If you were a supporter of Ronald Reagan’s incursions into Nicaragua in the 1980s it is quite likely that Kris Kristofferson would have symbolised everything you hated about country music, because more than any other country artist, Kristofferson represented – and still represents – country as a music that champions people who suffer oppression within and beyond America’s borders. Along with the tribulations suffered by America’s white working and underclass, Kristofferson made the struggles of people of colour part of the language of country music.

Third World Warrior was the second of two highly charged, deeply political albums recorded by the actor/singer songwriter between 1986 and 1990, the first being Repossessed. Over the course of these two albums Kristofferson paid tribute to the anti colonial pacifist Mahatma Ghandi, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Democratic presidential candidate nominee Jessie Jackson, and the people of Nicaragua, who at the time were the subject of a protracted war waged by the American government, and whose struggle was fought by the socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The identity of Kristofferson’s Third World Warrior was as likely the Sandinista’s leader Daniel Ortega as it was any of the Nicaraguan men and women who resisted American domination and more often than not paid for doing so with their lives.


Two. ‘bastards’…

As to the identities of the ‘bastards’ in Kristofferson’s song, the following should provide an indication of who Kristofferson may have been talking about.

Nicaragua is smaller than New York State and poorer than Haiti – in fact it is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. In the 20th century it was invaded by the U.S fourteen times. In 1912 the U.S invaded the island and occupied it until 1933, during which time they engineered the rise to power of the Somoza dictatorship. Trained by the U.S government and kept in power by eight successive U.S administrations, Anastasio Somoza and his family ruled Nicaragua for forty three years until they were overthrown in July1979 by a cross class coalition of Nicaraguans, led by the Sandinistas. The Sandinista government then set about repairing the damage done by the decades of domination.

Over a nine-year period, beginning in 1981 and ending in 1990, the U.S government’s attempt to cut short Nicaragua’s hard won freedom resulted in the murder of fifty thousand of the island’s inhabitants – a quarter of the population. Here is how they did it. This is from a testimony given by former CIA senior estimates officer, Dr. David MacMichael to The Hague in a case brought by the Nicaraguan government against the U.S government in 1986 for war reparations, which we found at http://partners.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/13431

In autumn 1981 MacMichael attended a meeting of the Latin American affairs office of the CIA, which submitted the initial plan to fund and set up a fifteen to eighteen thousand man covert force on the Nicaraguan border, shipping arms from Nicaragua to the El Salvador insurgents. In his testimony MacMichael said the aim of the covert force, also known as the contras ‘was to weaken, even destabilise the Nicaraguan Government and thus reduce the menace it allegedly posed to the United States’ interests in Central America…

MacMichael told the court that the idea behind the contras was that they would, ‘provoke cross-border attacks by Nicaraguan forces and thus serve to demonstrate Nicaragua’s aggressive nature and possibly call into play the Organisation of American States’ provisions (regarding collective self-defence). It was hoped that the Nicaraguan Government would clamp down on civil liberties within Nicaragua itself, arresting its opposition, so demonstrating its allegedly inherent totalitarian nature and thus increase domestic dissent within the country, and further that there would be reaction against United States citizens, particularly against United States diplomatic personnel within Nicaragua and thus demonstrate the hostility of Nicaragua towards the United States.

The plan was given the go ahead and a $19 million start up by the Reagan administration. Ronald Reagan had been elected president in January and, picking up where his predecessor Jimmy Carter left off, accelerated the U.S government’s attempts to destabilise the Sandinista government. But for all Reagan’s efforts, which included funding the opposition to the tune of around $17 million dollars, Nicaragua, thanks to the Sandinistas, held its first free elections of the 20th century in1984.

And they won.

The Sandinista’s victory and their all round decency, especially in the face of such protracted bullying by the U.S – not to mention the clandestine million dollars a month the contras were receiving from the Saudis – served as a model of successful socialism for interested observers all over the world. By then the contras were hitting Nicaragua hard. Even so, the Sandinista government had managed to substantially reduce illiteracy, malnutrition, and infant mortality. They increased spending on schools and clinics and made almost half the country’s arable land available to small farmers.

Two years later, in February1986, President Reagan asked Congress for $100 million in aid for the contras. In June that year Reagan’s request was granted. By then Colonel Oliver North was a few months away from being discovered to have been responsible for diverting funds from the sales of weapons to Iran to the contras. The Iran-Contra scandal went public in November with the news that between ten and thirty million dollars of profits from the sale of U.S. arms to Iran had been diverted to Swiss bank accounts for use by contra rebels in Nicaragua.

The scenario of the world’s richest and most well equipped military taking up arms and going to such lengths against the second poorest country in the world is enough to make you wonder why, having had its interests and allies democratically rejected, the U.S government was so bothered by a free and fair election in a tiny, economically and militarily weak country with a population of around five million, most of whom earned less than $300 a year. Here is how Noam Chomsky answered that question in this extract from his 2003 book, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, which we found at libcom.org:

The international development organisation Oxfam explained the real reasons, stating that, from its experience of working in seventy six developing countries, ‘Nicaragua was…exceptional in the strength of that government’s commitment…to improving the condition of the people and encouraging their active participation in the development process.’

Of the four Central American countries where Oxfam had a significant presence (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua), only in Nicaragua was there a substantial effort to address inequities in land ownership and to extend health, educational and agricultural services to poor peasant families.

Other agencies told a similar story. In the early 1980s, the World Bank called its projects ‘extraordinarily successful in Nicaragua in some sectors, better than anywhere else in the world.’ In 1983, The Inter-American Development Bank concluded that ‘Nicaragua has made noteworthy progress in the social sector, which is laying the basis for long-term socio-economic development.’

The success of the Sandinista reforms terrified US planners. They were aware that – as José Figueres, the father of Costa Rican democracy, put it – ‘for the first time, Nicaragua has a government that cares for its people.’

On how exactly the U.S responded, Chomsky writes the following:

The US launched a three-fold attack against Nicaragua. First, we exerted extreme pressure to compel the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to terminate all projects and assistance.

Second, we launched the contra war along with an illegal economic war to terminate what Oxfam rightly called ‘the threat of a good example.’ The contras’ vicious terrorist attacks against ‘soft targets’ under US orders did help, along with the boycott, to end any hope of economic development and social reform. US terror ensured that Nicaragua couldn’t demobilise its army and divert its pitifully poor and limited resources to reconstructing the ruins that were left by the US-backed dictators and Reaganite crimes. The contras were even funded by the US selling arms to Iran, in what became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.

One of the most respected Central America correspondents, Julia Preston (who was then working for the Boston Globe), reported that ‘Administration officials said they are content to see the contras debilitate the Sandinistas by forcing them to divert scarce resources toward the war and away from social programmes.’ That’s crucial, since the social programmes were at the heart of the good example that might have infected other countries in the region and eroded the American system of (much higher-grade) exploitation and robbery.

We even refused to send disaster relief. After the 1972 earthquake, the US sent an enormous amount of aid to Nicaragua, most of which was stolen by our buddy Somoza. In October 1988, an even worse natural disaster struck Nicaragua – Hurricane Joan. We didn’t send a penny for that, because if we had, it would probably have gotten to the people, not just into the pockets of some rich thug. We also pressured our allies to send very little aid.

This devastating hurricane, with its welcome prospects of mass starvation and long-term ecological damage, reinforced our efforts. We wanted Nicaraguans to starve so we could accuse the Sandinistas of economic mismanagement. Because they weren’t under our control, Nicaraguans had to suffer and die.

Third, we used diplomatic fakery to crush Nicaragua. As Tony Avirgan wrote in the Costa Rican journal Mesoamerica, ‘the Sandinistas fell for a scam perpetrated by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias and the other Central American Presidents, which cost them the February (1990) elections.’

For Nicaragua, the peace plan of August 1987 was a good deal, Avrigan wrote: they would move the scheduled national elections forward by a few months and allow international observation, as they had in 1984, ‘in exchange for having the contras demobilised and the war brought to an end…’

The Nicaraguan government did what it was required to do under the peace plan, but no one else paid the slightest attention to it.

Arias, the White House and Congress never had the slightest intention of implementing any aspect of the plan. The US virtually tripled CIA supply flights to the contras. Within a couple of months the peace plan was totally dead.

As the election campaign opened, the US made it clear that the embargo that was strangling the country and the contra terror would continue if the Sandinistas won the election.’

By 1990 the Sandinista government, economically isolated by the United States and having spent most of its money fending off – and beating – the contras, were presiding over the second poorest economy in Central America with the highest debt of any country on the planet. Inflation was soaring, as were poverty and unemployment figures, and food and basic commodities were under ration. ‘The amazing part’, Chomsky wrote, ‘was that the Sandinistas still got 40% of the vote, while New York Times headlines proclaimed that Americans were ‘United in Joy’ over this ‘Victory for US Fair Play.’

Well, not all Americans. The Nicaragua Network tirelessly supported the revolution and supplied honest alternatives to often-biased U.S and European media coverage of affairs in Nicaragua – and continues to do so. ‘The most fundamental mission of the Nicaragua Network is to stop our government from intervening in Nicaragua’s internal affairs,’ is how NN’s national co-ordinator Chuck Kaufman described NN’s objective in 2008.

There is also Vietnam Veterans Against War. Here is a message from one of their members, Louis De Benedette, which was featured in Vietnam Veterans Against War, Volume 32, edition 1, 2001. De Benedette’s article, titled The Promised Land, Nicaragua, is a plea for American grassroots support for the people of Nicaragua and the re-election of the Sandinista party, and it describes how drastically the quality of life for Nicaraguans declined in the ten years since the Sandinistas lost the election. Here’s an extract:

The poor in Nicaragua must vote for a Sandinista government on November 4, or the poverty and corruption will not end. I have lived a year and a half in Nicaragua, primarily in the department of Boaco. My last article for The Veteran was in 1999, when Mark Swanfeldt and I financed the initial reconstruction of the Sandinista department office. I also built houses and repaired a school in a poor barrio. Since then, the situation in Nicaragua has gotten worse.

Even the United Nations declared Nicaragua the second poorest country in Latin America. My firsthand experience of this poverty has made me angry at the corruption in the government and at U.S. intervention. There are many children here in Boaco and almost all are malnourished. There is gross unemployment, and little free health care. This situation never existed under the Sandinista. I have meagre funds, and with this I distribute food and medicine. When people donate to me I use it for the needs of the people, who are always poor Sandinista.

Poverty is related to the corruption in the Aleman government. Arnaldo Aleman, of the Liberal Constitutional Party, has betrayed the people of Nicaragua. Taxes for water and electricity are very high, and this tax money never finds its way to the poor. Aleman came into office as the former mayor of Managua and with 3,000 dollares. He now has millions, and acres of prime farmland.

Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista candidate for president, is recommending a transition commission made up of the candidates from the three main parties: Sandinista, Liberal and Conservative. This commission would clean up the corruption before the elections and give the people of Nicaragua a chance to survive the poverty.

War veterans of the Sandinista army receive no free health care, as they did during Ortega’s time. With the help of Eric Swanfeldt, a Methodist pastor, I was able to pay for testing and medicine for a disabled veteran who nearly died after a fall from a ladder. I live among many veterans and disabled veterans of the war. Unemployment is great for them, since the area is heavily Liberal. Officers of the army were promised land in 1993 and have yet to get their titles. The wives and the mothers of the vets and their children all need health care. I have been sending them to Planned Parenthood, since the best doctors are there. The state health centres do nothing good. This is a country of children who receive little help from a corrupt government.
With Daniel Ortega, there is hope to reach the Promised Land.’


Three. …and promises (‘the real and the unreal’)

Daniel Ortega’s campaign for the 2001 elections had taken on a distinctly Mosaic tone – to which De Benedette may have been responding with that last line. This next extract, Casting Nicaragua’s Electoral Flick, uses a movie metaphor to take a wry look at the elections. In this text, published on the Revista Envio website in March 2006, we find the Sandinista party casting Ortega as Moses. Perhaps they were imagining Nicaragua’s political future in cinematic as well as Biblical terms:

Daniel Ortega is afraid of losing for the third time, as his adversaries have so often predicted. Lacking the gallantry to decline the candidacy, however, he has decided to face the risk with faith, a religious faith. One of the less-than-lilting slogans that debuted in the Congress was ‘United Nicaragua is the Promised Land, a refulgent future with President Daniel.’ Meanwhile, Managua was bedecked with banners full of flowers and slogans such as ‘Go forward my people, God willing!’ and ‘Together we are the life, together we are the Promised Land!’ The campaign song, which also premiered at the Congress, has the rhythm of a Negro spiritual used for cleansing sessions. With the repeated chorus ‘Let it be!’ the Argentine singer Piero’s smooth voice embraces the electorate with the words of this novel ‘programme’: ‘I need to go from madness to peace, from darkness to light, from the unreal to the real…’

The Sandinista were defeated in the 2001 election.

They didn’t return to power until 2006, which by Louis De Benedette’s reckoning and indeed the reckoning of Ortega himself, could mean that the Sandinistas had, albeit with some delay, brought the people of Nicaragua to the Promised Land. Although saying that, we aren’t sure it turned out to be the place some of Ortega’s supporters had in mind. The Sandinistas won by forming a coalition of conservatives, old enemies, and the Catholic Church, and what looked to all intents and purposes like a pronounced and dangerously pragmatic shift away from the project of democratic socialism cut short in 1990 – a shift which was viewed by at least one section of the left in the following manner. This is an excerpt from Nicaraguan election: Ortega’s victory and the dead-end of Sandinismo, by Rafael Azul and Patrick Martin of the World Socialist Web Site. To put this in context you should be aware that, as expected, Ortega inherited an almighty mess from his political predecessors of the last seventeen years:

Ortega’s response to the deepening social calamity is to embrace policies that will remove remaining barriers to investment and insure that Nicaragua remains a low-wage platform for transnational corporations, expanding the so-called free trade zones that now employ tens of thousands of Nicaraguans in slave-like conditions for hunger wages.

The Sandinista leader will assume the presidency under conditions in which Nicaragua and Central America are fast approaching a social breaking point. In the last year, Nicaraguan workers have repeatedly repudiated the FSLN and PLC’s pro-business policies. This year alone has seen strikes by thousands of transport workers, teachers and public health workers against government austerity policies and the collapse of basic living standards. Free trade zone workers are increasingly demanding collective bargaining rights and decent conditions. They have been joined by strikes and protests on the part of agricultural workers and the unemployed.

In response to this mounting crisis, Ortega has been placed in charge by the very oligarchy that was once his enemy, alongside a contra vice president. The FSLN, a movement that began as a guerrilla army claiming to represent the poor and the oppressed against the Somoza dictatorship, is entrusted with safeguarding Nicaraguan capitalism, fully committed to the defence of profits for big business and the repression of the working class and poor.

[…] The strategic problem facing the working class of Latin America, as in all the backward and oppressed countries, remains that elaborated by Leon Trotsky in his theory of Permanent Revolution: the construction of revolutionary parties that will establish the political independence of the working class from the national bourgeoisie and unite the oppressed in the ‘third world’ with the working class in the advanced countries in a common struggle for socialism.’

The return to power of the Sandinistas may not have had all the trappings and tropes of the fearless guerrilla Marxism with which Ortega and his comrades faced down the U.S government, and it may not have turned Nicaragua into the promised land of liberation theology tinted socialism, but even so, Ortega’s critics lost no time in resuming their old enmities. For some, the Sandinista’s treatment of the Miskito Indians of the coast of Nicaragua was evidence enough of the party’s unsuitability for governance.

In 1982 the Sandinista government moved ten thousand Miskito Indians from the Atlantic coast to settlements known as ‘Tasba Pri’, which in the Miskito language means ‘Free Land’ or ‘Promised Land’.

The revolution meant little to the Miskito. In the three hundred years or so before the Sandinista arrived they had been ruled by the British, their land had been exploited by foreign companies, plundered by the Somozas and they had been governed by the Moravian and, latterly, the U.S staffed Catholic church, who fed them a steady diet of anti communist propaganda. When the Sandinista turned up the Miskito were poor, sickly, and marginalised, and their location along the Atlantic coast meant they were so cut off from the rest of the country that the anti Somoza insurrection all but passed them by, so when the Sandinistas came offering liberation, the Miskito viewed them as no more than an addition to a long line of conquerors. Plus they were Communists. Aided by the contras, some Miskito took arms against the Sandinistas. The UNHCR estimates that thirty four Miskito were killed, which was enough for critics of the Sandinista to accuse them of attempted genocide.

Here’s an overview of what happened from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Professor Emeritus of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies at California State University. It is from an interview conducted by the New Left Project in February 2010 titled Indigenous Struggles in the Americas: Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: there are other things you can read which clarify the matter – there’s Jinotega’s Miskitos and Sumus: Little Noted Victims of the Contra War (1989) and Nicaragua’s Resettlement Project (1982), both of which you can find on the envio.org website, but this is as good and concise a place to start as any:

NLP: You were deeply involved in opposition to the US proxy war against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua during the 1980s. It was frequently claimed however that the Sandinistas were violating the human rights of the Miskito population. How do you reconcile your support for indigenous peoples with your support for the Sandinistas?

RDO: It’s interesting that the question is nearly always put that way, clean cut, Sandinistas or Indigenous, which side are you on, as if we are talking about Nazis and Jews, or workers and corporations, in which case one has to choose which side. Following the Sandinista triumph there was civil war, which of course the Reagan administration exploited; there are always civil wars following revolutions, since the revolution itself is a civil war. Take the case of the U.S. war of independence in which half the settler population (‘Tories’) fought with the British against secession.

The Miskitos were also divided, and the U.S. Christian missionaries in the Mosquitia had close relations with the U.S. government. The U.S-based American Indian Movement, already weakened by years of U.S harassment, divided with one group (that also made up the International Indian Treaty Council) supporting the Miskitos who worked with the Sandinistas, while another, smaller group supported the anti-Sandinista Miskitos.

In Latin America, there was little support for the anti-Sandinista Miskitos who took up arms and allied with the U.S. intervention. So, it was much more complex than simply pro-Sandinista meant not supporting the Miskito demands for autonomy and self-determination. I would say that my own actions and position was in the majority Indigenous thinking on the issue. The northeastern region, the Mosquitia, did become a war zone (as did the north-western region), with U.S.-controlled Honduras allowing camps across the border for the contras and for the Miskito anti-Sandinista combatants who were supported by the CIA and the contras. The heavy presence of the Sandinista army and restrictions and deprivations caused by war certainly were oppressive, and there were instances of abuses, but clearly not policy-driven. The propaganda of gross human rights violations (Reagan’s UN ambassador claimed that one hundred thousand Miskitos had been ‘slaughtered,’ which was more than the entire Miskito population) was overwhelming, beginning in February 1982.

NLP; What is your view of the current Nicaraguan government led by Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega?

RDO; I tend to follow the views of the MRS, the Movement for the Renovation of Sandinismo, which split from Ortega’s domination of the FSLN. However, for the Miskitos, this administration has been certainly more responsive in terms of constitutional autonomy than those of the preceding fifteen years.’

Dunbar-Ortiz may be alluding to a news story that appeared three years earlier, in April 2007, which saw the Sandinista government looking out for their old Miskito adversaries:

Nicaragua Sandinistas to fight former foes’ hunger
Mon Apr 2, 2007 11:29pm EDT

MANAGUA, April 2 (Reuters) – Nicaragua’s Sandinista government will hand out seeds and farm animals to fight hunger [on] the Caribbean coast, including among Miskito Indians who fought the leftists’ first government in the 1980s.

Agriculture Minister Ariel Bucardo said the project would help seventy five thousand malnourished families, starting in the extremely poor Rio Coco region, close to the border with Honduras.‘It is incredible the level of poverty in this region,’ Bucardo told reporters. He said an average of 17 people died of hunger-related diseases in the region each month.

Rio Coco, an often waterlogged zone recently blighted by crop-destroying plagues of rats, is largely populated by the Miskito and Mayagna ethnic groups. The Miskitos, traditionally turtle fishermen, aligned with U.S.-financed ‘Contra’ rebels to fight the revolutionary government of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in the 1980s.

Thousands of Miskitos were forcibly relocated by the first Sandinista government. Under the new programme, which Bucardo said would last five years and cost about $150 million, families will be given farm animals, seeds and tools. Ortega was voted out of office in 1990 but made a comeback after winning elections last year. He has promised reconciliation with wartime enemies and says he will reduce poverty.

Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Americas, after Haiti.

Then in 2009 the Miskito announced its secession from Nicaragua. The reasons, as of writing, are a bit of a mystery and the Nicaraguan government and the international community have yet to respond. But it could be a potential problem for Nicaragua. As journalist Karla Jacobs points out, ‘It would be naïve to overlook the attractiveness the extreme social and political vulnerability of the region (the poorest and least developed of Central America) would represent, in terms of being a potential punto de entrada, for groups interested in destabilising the country and its central government.’

If you were wondering what the Sandinista had actually achieved since coming to power, well here is Nicaragua Network’s Chuck Kaufman with a text dated 9 December 2008, called Open Letter to Nicaragua Solidarity Activists. You can read the full text at www.nicanet.org/?p=591.  Here’s an extract:

While the government of President Daniel Ortega may fall short in the area of democratic socialism, it is our judgment that it is demonstrating a proven preferential option for the poor.

[…] I would cite as an example that it will have eliminated illiteracy by July 2009 and the majority of municipalities have already been declared free of illiteracy. That is due, in part, to the fact that the first action of the new government was to eliminate school fees. This bold action enabled more than 100,000 additional children to attend school. During the neoliberal years, many parents weren’t able to send their kids to school because of school fee policies dictated by the IMF and World Bank. For adult literacy the Sandinista government has implemented the Cuban literacy programme ‘Yes, I Can!’ and even extended it to the Miskito and Mayagna (Sumo) indigenous languages.

That is just one example. The free health clinics are once again staffed and stocked with medicine so that patients receive medicine, rather than prescriptions they couldn’t afford to fill under the right-wing governments of 1990-2007. Cooperation with Cuba and Venezuela has given several thousand people back their sight after cataract surgery, and free operations in the hospitals have saved uncounted lives. The Sandinista government has also resurrected the small and medium farming sector, the historic backbone of Nicaragua’s economy, which wasn’t even in the National Development Plan Ortega inherited from his predecessor Enrique Bolaños.

The Zero Hunger programme has provided 32,709 poor families with animals, seeds, fertiliser, etc, so they could become food self-sufficient and sell their surplus. Zero Usury has provided low interest loans to small farmers and merchants so they can earn a livelihood and feed their families. Houses for the People is putting roofs over the heads of families that previously lived in shacks built of anything they could find. Project Love is working to eliminate the tragedy of child labour. The subsidised food distribution centres are all that stand between some families and malnutrition. The Sandinista government is taking steps to feed, clothe and house its people despite skyrocketing food costs and the greatest crisis in capitalism in 80 years. I think these programmes mean something; and what they mean for the lives of real people is more important than the howls and outrage among the political class in Nicaragua and abroad.’

Staying with howls of outrage, it seems to us that the distance of the 21st century model of Sandinista governance from the Sandinistas 20th century incarnation will be measured by the government’s engagement with women’s reproductive rights as they are represented by the question of abortion. As of 2006 Nicaragua became one of only three countries in the world in which women who become pregnant after being raped, or whose lives are endangered by their pregnancy, are banned from having abortions – the other two countries are Chile and El Salvador. Nicaraguan law refuses to take into account a woman’s age or her ability to care for a child and will prosecute any woman who has an abortion. Which is as far as you can get from the gender equality that characterised the 20th century Sandinista.

Still, here’s how the Nicaraguan government sees it. This is from the Nicaragua Network: ‘In February 2010 The Nicaraguan government defended as an ‘exercise of the sovereignty of our country’ its law criminalising therapeutic abortion during the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva on Feb. 8. The UPR is a mechanism through which all UN member states submit to a review of their human rights situation. Minister of Government Ana Isabel Morales told the UN body, ‘The majority of Nicaraguan citizens consider the right to life of the unborn to be important, that the foetus is a person with the right to life, and that abortion is not an appropriate form of birth control…the solution is not abortion but the use of contraceptives.

Her response did not prevent representatives of several States from calling for legal reform permitting therapeutic abortion for incest, sexual violence against the woman, or if the woman’s life is in danger. Mexico, France, Slovenia, and Norway in particular advocated this position.

Nicaraguan human rights leader Vilma Nuñez de Escorcia, who is also vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights (IFHR), spoke to reporters and criticised the Nicaraguan government for not consulting with all of civil society to prepare its presentation to the UN. She spoke of her concern about violations ofwomen’s rights, especially in cases of domestic violence, and [concern] about the prohibition of therapeutic abortion which is a means to save the life of a woman at risk in a difficult pregnancy.

Amnesty International also criticised Nicaragua’s law because it provides no exception to protect medical professionals from legal penalties.

And here is how Sofía Montenegro of the Nicaraguan Autonomous Women’s Movement sees it. This is an extract from an interview by IPS correspondent Ana Artigas with Montenegro dated February 28, 2010 and titled Nicaragua: The Women’s Movement Is In Opposition:

Women’s organisations are fighting for the repeal of the October 2006 law that criminalised therapeutic abortion, said Montenegro, a former FSLN member who is one of the country’s leading women’s rights activists.

Before the law came into force, the Criminal Code permitted termination of pregnancy when the mother’s physical or mental health was in danger, including psychological harm from pregnancy arising from rape, when certified by at least three doctors. ‘If this were influenza, a national epidemic would already have been declared,’ Montenegro said, referring to the deaths caused by the criminalisation of any kind of abortion.

Montenegro reflected on these issues and Nicaraguan politics in an interview with IPS correspondent Ana Artigas at a June 18-20 meeting of representatives of Latin American and Caribbean women’s groups and Spanish development aid agencies, on women’s rights and development aid instruments, held in the Uruguayan capital.

IPS: How did therapeutic abortions come to be criminalised?

SM: The Church had always wanted to repeal that right. The appropriate conditions were created by the political opportunism of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo. For electoral reasons, they aligned themselves more closely with the Church in order to neutralise its influence.

It was the votes of FSLN lawmakers, not the right, that made the repeal of therapeutic abortion possible. It was a betrayal of women, who were key allies of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution.

IPS: Could unconstitutionality be used as an argument, as it was in Colombia in order to decriminalise abortion under certain circumstances?

SM: Thirty-six lawsuits challenging the law as unconstitutional have been brought before the Supreme Court, but a year and a half has gone by and it still hasn’t issued a ruling.

IPS: Are there statistics indicating an increase in the mortality rate because of the law?

SM: It’s difficult to produce figures because information is withheld. In spite of the fact that there is a law on access to public information, the government keeps it all under wraps.

What we do have are estimates from organisations that monitor such cases, which indicate that 110 women have died since therapeutic abortions were banned. But the voices of women, of all the sensible people who have challenged the law, and of the international community have not been heeded.

IPS: Haven’t doctors reacted at all?

SM: They face a five-year prison sentence if they carry out an abortion, although 95 percent of Nicaraguans are against the ban. The black market for abortions has grown, and consequently the price of the illegal service has gone up.

IPS: But aren’t abortion practitioners subject to a five-year jail term?

SM: The state is not able to prosecute everyone – the problem is performing abortions in the public health service: they take away your license and you go to jail. As always, the problem hits poor women the hardest. Well-off women can go to Costa Rica, or even Cuba. Women in the FSLN go to Cuba for abortions.’



Kris Kristofferson interviewed by Freemuse, Oslo, Norway, 31 March 2008

NICARAGUA Reforming the countryside. New Internationalist 156, February 1986

Nicaragua VS the United States http://partners.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/13431

Introduction to Nicaragua, by the Centre for Development in Central America, www.jhc-cdca.org

Nicaragua 1981-1990 – Destabilisation in slow motion. From the book Killing Hope, by William Blum

Ronald Reagan Timeline. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/reagan/timeline

What Uncle Sam Really Wants, by Noam Chomsky (Pluto, 2003)

Nicaragua – Casting Nicaragua’s Electoral Flick. Revista Envio 236, March 2001 http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/1480

The Promised Land, Nicaragua, by Louis De Benedette, Vietnam Veterans Against War, Volume 31, number 1 2001

Nicaraguan election: Ortega’s victory and the dead-end of Sandinismo, by Rafael Azul and Patrick Martin, World Socialist Web Site, 30 November 2006. Published by the International Committee of the Fourth International

Indigenous Struggles in the Americas: Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz by New Left Project, 23 February 2010

Nicaragua Sandinistas to fight former foes’ hunger, Reuters, 2 Apr 2007 http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN02201139

Miskito Elders Council declares La Mosquitia independent of Nicaragua, by Karla Jacobs in Nicaragua – Tortilla con sal. 12 May 2000, from Axis of Logic

Open Letter to Nicaragua Solidarity Activists, by Chuck Kaufman, 9 December 2008

Nicaragua defends criminalisation of therapeutic abortion before the UN. Nicaragua News Bulletin, 9 February 2010)

Nicaragua: ‘The Women’s Movement Is in Opposition’, by Ana Artigas 28 February 2010



<   >