Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle Rutgers University Press, 1995 - New Star Books, Vancouver, 1981

, by Margaret Randall

Introduction to the Rutgers Edition

Since 1981, when this book first appeared in English, Nicaragua’s history has moved quickly and been tumultuous enough so that some will ask: are these stories still relevant? Those who have read or heard of them will quickly respond: now more than ever. Since Rutgers’ 1994 publication of a sequel, there has been renewed interest in the original volume—some 30,000 copies-strong but several years out of print. Among my titles, it continues to be the one most widely read and that which has brought me the greatest number of excited letters. Taken together, I believe that both books provide a useful continuity, giving voice to the process Nicaragua’s revolutionary women have gone through from their war of liberation against Somoza to the present.

As I say, things tend to move explosively in the Central American nation, for women and for everyone. With this introduction to the 1995 reedition, I want to tell you why I believe these women’s stories still matter, what they have to do with a rapidly chang¬ing world, and fill you in on some of Nicaragua’s history since these pages first saw the light.

The official U.S. press has always described societies attempting some form of socialist change in overly critical terms; thus Sandinista Nicaragua was systematically portrayed as a nation in dire straights. The truth is, ten years of Sandinista administration produced a successful literacy campaign, institutionalized follow-up educational programs, reduced unemployment, brought down infant mortality and lengthened life expectancy, wiped out a number of epidemic diseases, and pushed the standard of living way up for most Nicaraguans. Justice began to be palpable. In a word, the revolution meant dignity. The wealthiest class lost out, of course, and therein lay the problem for the "free" world.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) joined a spotty opposition-in-arms, and the United States used economic and diplomatic weapons as well, to effectively pressure the Sandinista government; which was billed here as communist but which in truth combined a libertarian nationalism with deep Christian roots and a variety of socialist tenets. The clincher was the enormous amount of money funnelled to the opposition coalition that succeeded in beating the Sandinistas at the polls. Three years after this 1990 electoral loss, and notwithstan¬ding lavish promises of U.S. aid, statistics showed Nicaragua having fallen below all other Central American countries in every one of its socioeconomic indicators.

In 1993 the country’s gross national product (GNP) was the lowest in the region, at 0.3 billion dollars. El Salvador’s was the highest at 7.6, and even Honduras produced 2.5. The GNP growth rate was 6% for Costa Rica with the other countries slightly lower. Nicaragua’s growth rate was -0.5%. It’s per capita GNP growth was -4.6%, while her sister nations enjoyed per capita growth rates of between 0.7% and 3.4%.

In 1993 Nicaraguans suffered an official unemployment rate of 45%, as opposed to 5.5% for Costa Rica and between 12 and 14% for the other Central American countries. Cost of living went up more than 20%, second only to 21.8% for Costa Rica; this compared with 0.5% in Panama and 13% in Guatemala. Nicaragua’s foreign debt rose to almost $11 billion U.S., roughly five times that of any of the other isthmus nations; and its ratio of this debt to its export trade went well over the two thousand percent mark (in Panama it was 107.4, in Honduras 334.8, and in all the other counries it hovered beneath 200).

All of the above is a direct result of the Sandinista defeat. The guerrillas who became statespeople made some mistakes, as all governments do, but their people’s wellbeing was always at the center of their socioeconomic programs.

Although it lost the 1990 general elections, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) for a time remained a highly organized and viable force in Nicaraguan politics. It had a history, after all, of honing itself in opposition to almost insurmountable odds. It rose to power against one of the strongest and most entrenched dictatorships on the continent. Later, its victory had been closely followed by the Reagan/Bush years in the United States. The fall of the socialist bloc countries had not meant as dramatic a loss of support to Sandinista Nicaragua as it had to Cuba; still, it was an important blow.

But events were coming in fast succession. As Judy Butler so aptly points out, "In their move from guer¬ril¬las to government officials and from stat[espeople] to the political opposition, the FSLN leaders had little time for emotional, political, or strategic preparation." This race against time took an inevitable toll.

In July of 1992 when I was in Nicaragua doing the field work for Sandino’s Daughters Revisit¬ed, I joined 60,000 people in Managua’s central square. And this crowd was celebrating a revolution no longer in power! A powerful minority in parliament was still Sandinista, and the party had won in a number of provincial races. The goal was to retain control of the army so that it could not be used against the people (as had happened in Chile and elsewhere with such tragic results), and to try to defend those gains that had been achieved through a decade of popular government. This, however, proved more and more difficult.

Butler notes that "Sandinista peasants, many of them ex-soldiers . . . resorted to armed actions—sometimes coordinated with their equally impoverished former enemies [the Contras] to force a government response to common economic and social demands." The international lending agencies, largely controlled by the United States, could do little when faced with Nicaragua’s $11 billion foreign debt. Once the elected governing coalition fell apart, the extreme right stepped in—with no little help from its hardline friends in the United States. It has managed to disarticulate both the moderate right (symbolized by UNO) and the Sandinistas.

In the five years since the FSLN lost State power, the party itself has fragmented—probably beyond repair. There were several moments when the FSLN might have gone the road of real democratic inquiry and renewal (prior to its first congress in 1991 or leading up to and during its extraordinary congress in 1994, to name but two of these). But this didn’t happen. Instead, its ruptures have increasingly made themselves felt in the party’s parliamentary delegation, leading news media, and elsewhere. Ex president Daniel Ortega has been able to consolidate power among the most rhetorical and dogmatic (and, I would argue, sexist), in control of a base that is every day hungrier and more willing to listen to the easiest and least reliable survival formulae. Sergio Ramírez, Dora María Téllez, and others, who represent the voices of reason, have been less willing to chant catchy slogans and so have seen the erosion of their popular support.

The next national elections will be held in 1996. It is unlikely that any part of the Sandinista movement will win the presidency, unless it is able to forge a workable alliance with the moderate wing of those currently holding power. There is the fear that the top office may go to Arnoldo Alemán, the extremely rightist mayor of Managua, a man who would bring back much of the worst of the Somoza era. Progressive economists and political thinkers have been appealing for international support with a "Fifty Years Is Enough" campaign, which advocates pardoning at least some of the national debt and holding bilateral negotiations more favorable to the country’s needs.

What all this has meant for women—inside the FSLN and in the population at large—is at the heart of Sandino’s Daughters Revisited. Feminist women inside the organization, who for years had unsuccessfully demanded some attention to gender politics, no longer felt bound by public allegiance to a party in power. Stories of sexism, betrayals, and amazing courage emerged; these are what make the latter book so intense.

And of course Nicaraguan women’s lives haven’t stopped with the end of that volume either. In June of 1994, the FSLN’s national directorate was enlarged from 9 to 15 members. Five of these are women: Dora María Téllez—who had failed to make it onto the directorate’s previous configuration, Mónica Baltodano, Benigna Mendiola, Dorotea Wilson (all interviewed in the book you hold in your hands), and Mirna Cunningham (interviewed in its successor).

The Luisa Amanda Espinosa Nicaraguan Women’s Association (AMNLAE), that figures so prominently in Sandino’s Daughters, has also undergone important changes. Its failure during the last years of Sandinista government to address gender-specific issues, weakened its appeal to many women. The independent feminist movement, that started before and exploded after the 1990 electoral defeat, challenged AMNLAE to more feminist positions. The organization, while never altogether separating itself from a male-dominated party, did begin dealing with some of the most important of these, such as organizational autonomy, abortion, domestic and other violence against women and, to a lesser extent, sexual diversity.

Meanwhile, in an era that urged the establishment of non-governmental institutions, women founded and headed a number of these. Puntos de Encuentro (Meeting Places) publishes a bulletin of news items and short articles, and is read avidly by the female population. Cezontle is a think tank and research center with a number of important studies and publications to its credit. Xochiquetzal addresses issues of sexuality, particularly for lesbians and bisexuals. Nimehuatzín does AIDS outreach and advocacy. Women of various political persuasions have been able to work together in the parliamentary Women’s Commission. Additionally, the labor movement and the farmworkers association both have combative women’s committees.

Managua was the scene of an impressive meeting of women of differing politics who came together in January of 1992—some 800 strong. This was the culmination of work by a small group of feminist intellectuals who had been laboring for several years to imbue Nicaragua’s women’s movement with feminist positions. Some of them called themselves El partido de la izquierda erótica (Party of the Erotic Left, or PIE). Others had been active in the women’s caucuses of the unions or farmworkers. AMNLAE was not a part of this initiative, but some 50 of its members eventually came on board when it became obvious that not doing so would only isolate them further. Younger women called themselves The 52% Majority.

From then on, women’s gatherings came in rapid succession. Nicaragua hosted several of these, and also sent delegations to those in Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina and elsewhere. Some were feminist meetings; others lesbian-feminist. A lesbian, gay, and bisexual movement in Nicaragua gained momentum and shared work around some major struggles, such as that waged against a virulent anti-sodomy law enacted a couple of years after the Sandinistas were defeated at the polls. Other joint issues have been women’s health, advocating for a non-sexist sex education, raising consciousness about violence against women, and opening up lines of credit for women—all particularly important since the electoral loss meant the demise of so many of the country’s social programs.

In June, 1994, 204 Sandinista women calling themselves the autoconvocadas (the self-appointed) met in Managua. They used the term Sandinista in its broadest sense; describing themselves as "members or not of the FSLN, inactive as well as active." These women issued a historic document: "The Democratic Society Envisioned and Aspired To by Women." It touches on women’s political, economic, social, legal, psychological and sexual needs, and outlines a broad but profoundly progressive picture of the egalitarian society these women are struggling for.

Women seem to have come through the traumatic post-election period considerably better than their male counterparts. They have shown greater resiliency, more creativity, and have analyzed the failures of the Sandinista period in a much less mechanical, more holistic, way. In this context, as the FSLN has shown itself incapable of either the self-criticism or the renovation necessary to the reconsolidation of an effective people’s party, some women and men have publicly removed themselves from its ranks; among them Gioconda Belli and Ernesto Cardenal.

Rutgers’ reissuance of Sandino’s Daughters is important, among other reasons, because it brings back into print a series of interviews with the women who successfully overthrew an almost fifty-year old oppressive dynasty. These are their first stories, told to the world after years of silent struggle. Here is mostly raw experience, little in the way of theory. Here is ordinary heroism and an immense hope for a better life. Sandino’s Daughters Revisited takes these stories further. In it, these and other women assess Sandinism’s ability to keep its promises to women—and to an entire people—as well as those problems that remained or emerged.

And all of this is important because—despite those who would have us believe that the end of history has arrived, despite the self-congratulatory deprecation of peoples’ struggles spawned by U.S. hegemony after the disintegration of the socialist camp, the peoples of the world continue to yearn for justice and for peace. And among these, women are signalling the ways in which inattention to gender (as well as to race, ethnicity, sexual identity and other cultural differences) limited and weakened programs which, had they better understood the issues, might have remained in power. Many of us now believe that these movements’ inability to develop a feminist agenda was one of the factors that brought them down.

So read, again, about Dora María Téllez, third year medical student who joined the FSLN and went underground to lead military commandos, liberate cities, and handle delicate political negotiations. Listen to Nora Astorga—much later to become Nicaragua’s representative to the United Nations—as she talks about the incident that made her an international hero or traitor—depending upon your point of view. Hear mothers speaking about what they learned from their daughters, and the daughters retrieving and redeeming their mothers’ histories. Cry with the daughter of a Somoza official killed by the Sandinistas, who nonetheless joined the organization and fought for a society her father could not have understood; with the prostitute for whom the revolution meant freedom from indignity; with the nun who smuggled radio equip¬ment into the country inside the hollowed-out statues of saints. Hold your breath, as I did, with the mother and daughter who came upon one another chained and blindfolded in one of Somoza’s dungeons—and so learned each other’s true identities.

These stories are as vital and meaningful today as they were when I first recorded them in 1979-80; not simply because they are eloquent tales of intelligence, creativity, desire and courage—but because it is this intelligence, creativity, desire and courage we continue to need in our ongoing struggle to create a world where all are respected, all may grow.

—Margaret Randall
Albuquerque, Winter 1994-95.

Notes