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BOOK REVIEW: "Unfinished Revolution" by Kenneth E. Morris

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BOOK REVIEW: Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua’s Struggle for Liberation by Kenneth E. Morris (Chicago Review Press) 2010

The man who truly inspired Daniel Ortega’s revolutionary tendencies was the man who battled against the U.S. Marine Corps in his homeland of Nicaragua in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s – iconic guerilla leader Augusto Cesar Sandino.

It was from that name – Sandino – and his revolutionary legacy in battling Yankee imperialism, that Ortega and his fellow leftist rebels, in seeking to oust the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship once and for all, called themselves the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the name given to the group by

“We press onward toward the sunrise of liberty,” said Sandino in his time. And it was some 40 years later that Ortega, then leader of the Sandinistas, echoed Sandino’s words by saying: “Brothers and sisters, let us continue the battle for democracy, let us continue to battle for national dignity, let us continue the battle for Nicaragua.”

While it has been a few years since Kenneth E. Morris’s unofficial biography was first published, Ortega, born in a lower middle-class environment, has outlasted many of his fellow revolutionaries, not only serving as president of the Central American nation in the mid-to-late 1980’s, but being re-elected years later in 2006 and again in 2011. He leads Nicaragua to this very day.

But he was in America’s crosshairs for a long time, even though, as Morris points out, the American public was not in favor of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua.

And for all his flaws – and he has plenty, including the murder of a man in 1967 – Ortega was not the mindless, Marxist thug that Ronald Reagan, Iran-Contra scandal figure Oliver North and other 1980’s-era “uber-patriots” made him out to be in the lapdog, Contra-friendly, mainstream press.

No, Ortega was cunning. He was smart. He was a poet, as many claim to be in Nicaragua. And he always seemed to best his opponents. A lot of this came before and during his time he served in the hellish prison conditions he endured for a number of years. An experience which would later shadow him when he is accused on sexual molestation of a female family member.

But with his personal problems comes a desire to lead and to truly help his fellow Nicaraguans, long abused by the savage capitalists in El Norte.

And after a devastating earthquake destroyed much of the capital of Managua in late 1972, killing many, Somoza made sure that much of the aid was funneled to himself and his cronies rather than to the desperate people who needed it. Of course, Somoza famously referred to the Nicaraguan people as “oxen.”

The people of Nicaragua were ready for a revolution and to be rid of the Somoza dictatorship once and for all. And Ortega and the FSLN were ready to move forward with the revolution which could leave tens of thousands dead and many in exile, particularly in neighboring Costa Rica and the United States.

“At the time of victory,” writes Morris. “the economy was in shambles. In addition to the dead and the wounded, some 250,000 Nicaraguans were displaced by the fighting , and an estimated quarter of the population was hungry. Nearly two-thirds of the citizenry was classified as poor by the United Nations’ standards, half the children under five years old suffered from malnourishment, and half the population consumed an average of only 1,571 calories per day.”

It was pretty grim in the first few years after the Sandinistas toppled the Somoza regime. By 1983, Ortega, still a committed Roman Catholic, quipped: “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that it was easier to run a revolution than a country?” There were tensions within the FSLN and without it.

But ever the good guerilla-turned-leader (or was that dictator?) Ortega would soldier on through the 1980’s, abolishing the death penalty, increasing women’s rights and seeking citizen’s input on political matters. Ortega, notes Morris, would regularly appear at ‘Face the People’ meetings where average citizens could voice their concerns and express their opinions, something that was never allowed under the iron fist of Somoza. In fact, Ortega looked to the Swedish model as a form of government to aspire to, as idealistic as that may sound.

Yes, the Sandinista economists who managed affairs in the new Nicaragua were openly Marxist-Leninists and admired what Fidel Castro had accomplished in Cuba. But they were also pragmatic when facing so many problems domestically, with FSLN’s agrarian reformist leader Jaime Wheelock noting, “Economic doctrines and romantic ideas are no good if people are hungry.” This more moderate socialist viewpoint would lead to what is referred to as a “mixed economy,” and at the time, it seemed to work.

As for “freedom,” Ortega said he always thought of “freedom in the plural,” saying that freedom should be for everyone, not just those at the top, as it was for so long in Nicaragua. His Marxist thought, he said, provides a “certain guidance” when it comes to freedom, which is not truly freedom when a few millionaires get the lion’s share “and … everyone else (is) impoverished.”

It is true that efforts to improve literacy among the Nicaraguan people shot up dramatically between 1985 and 1990, the year that Ortega lost to Violeta Chamorro, a woman who had been a colleague of his during the junta. Chamorro and her successors embraced a more U.S.-friendly, neoliberal economic policy, while Ortega and the Sandinistas waited for the right opportunity to return to power – which they did in 2006. All the while, Ortega would be on friendly relations with the Cubans, Russians, Iranians, Venezuelans and other governments that were usually at odds with American foreign policy.

“They say we’re anti-democratic,” Ortega said of the Americans. “But we know what real democracy means. Democracy is literacy, democracy is land reform, democracy is education and public health!”

And yet the Reagan-Bush administration saw things differently when they saw to it that Somoza-era National Guard members, mercenaries and other anti-reformers banded loosely as “the Contras” and fought the war that the Reagan White House (interfering in Nicaragua’s affairs was the jellybean president’s “dark hobby”) felt would prevent “Soviet influence” in Nicaragua. But funding the Contras via arm sales to Iran (that and drug money, too! – “Just say no,” Nancy) would only lead to scandal that would hang over both the Reagan and Bush administrations, into the early 1990’s. Did they (right-wing stalwarts like beer magnate Joseph Coors, The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson, or crooner Pat Boone, for crying out loud! among others) care that the Contras kidnapped, tortured and executed civilians and much more? If they did, Morris doesn’t mention it.

In fact, the dumber and more willing you were to follow orders, the better. And Ollie North was the right guy for Ronnie.

“In North and others, Reagan found like-minded ideologues – people whose minds were equally uncluttered by complexities. As a senior U.S. Foreign Service officer put it, none of the White House war-makers knew ‘a damned thing about Latin America.’” Sounds about right.

Morris’s biography paints a fascinating picture of Daniel Ortega and modern Nicaragua with Unfinished Revolution. He is a bit enigmatic but with some of the charisma that we sometimes see with leftist revolutionary types in the Chavez or Castro mold. Still, there is something missing. I feel as though Morris was able to only scratch the surface of who Ortega really is over these 300 pages. And there are other details I’d like to know as well about the FSLN and the inner workings of the organization and Nicaraguan government. And with Ortega rapidly approaching 70, one wonders if the old rebel has some fire still in him?

And yes, Morris is somewhat uncritical of his subject. I guess that’s to be expected. It doesn’t mar the book any, it just lets you know where the author stands. Overall a decent read.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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