Incisive Nicaraguan history says Sandinistas aren't what they claim

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Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family, by Shirley Christian. New York: Random House. 338 pp. $19.95. Shirley Christian's ``Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family'' carries a simple proposition: the Sandinistas are not what they would like Westerners to think they are. A foreign affairs reporter for the New York Times, Ms. Christian covered Central America for the Associated Press and the Miami Herald. She argues convincingly that the Sandinistas are not and never have been a populist, grass-roots phenomenon; rather, they are -- and always have been -- a disciplined, calculating, Marxist-Leninist organizat ion. Christian says the Sandinistas have combined canny planning with fortuitous events to achieve their primary aims: the attainment and consolidation of power in Nicaragua.

Christian points out that the FSLN's name (Sandinista National Liberation Front) was chosen to capitalize on the legend that grew up around Augusto Sandino, the Nicaraguan peasant whose guerrillas fought a contingent of US Marines to a standstill in the 1930s, ultimately causing President Herbert Hoover to order the Americans' withdrawal. Sandino was later killed by Nicaraguan National Guardsmen. Their leader was Anastazio Somoza Garc'ia, the caudillo (strong man) who ruled Nicaragua from 1 933 until his assassination in 1956.

Somoza's appetite for land was as voracious as his capacity for food. His landholdings were passed on to his son Anastazio Somoza Debayle (the last name indicating his mother's surname). ``Tachito,'' a West Point graduate, followed in his father's footsteps, maintaining power through the National Guard and tenuous agreements with Nicaraguan oligarchs known as ``The Fourteen Families.''

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Christian contends that the younger Somoza's antagonism of the wider business community -- not to be confused with the oligarchy -- led to his downfall in 1979. The business community comprised the terceristas, or third force, supporting the FSLN after looking to Washington for help in removing Somoza. Christian sharply criticizes the Carter administration for its failure to act firmly and swiftly enough in cutting off aid to Somoza. American decisiveness, she writes, could have meant a neg otiated settlement that would have put the terceristas on firmer ground with the FSLN in a subsequent compromise government.

Christian notes that although the revolution was a popular movement, the establishment of ruling bodies afterward has been tightly controlled by the FSLN. She cites the mercurial fortunes of Eden Pastora, the famous Commander Zero, as the most dramatic case of before-and-after. Pastora pulled off what was virtually a suicide mission in August 1978, when he and 24 comrades seized the National Palace, holding captive the national Congress and various ministers of state for a ransom of a half-million dolla rs, publication of FSLN literature, and the release of 50 prisoners, terms that Somoza accepted.

Pastora had headed the Sandino Revolutionary Front and had been fighting the Somozas for some 20 years before allying himself with the FSLN in what turned out to be the final two years of the revolution. Although an admirer of Cuban guerrilla leader Ch'e Guevarra, Pastora was not a Marxist. In fact, the Sandinistas have recently criticized him for being ``a Christian.''

Pastora was, obviously, a brilliant tactician and a ferocious fighter. Because of this, Christian says, the FSLN assigned his forces to the southern front in 1978, along the Costa Rican border. This pitted his men against the best supplied and most disciplined National Guard units, who continued fighting even after Somoza had fled the country. This kept Pastora out of the victory celebration in Managua and, later, allowed certain Sandinistas to demean his contributions to the success of the revolution.

The ruling junta gave Pastora a largely titular post as ``deputy interior minister.'' It kept his face in front of cameras but, in Christian's words, also left him as ``the tenth man in a country run by nine.'' In July 1981, Pastora left Nicaragua. Nine months later, in Costa Rica, he made his first public speech against the Sandinistas.

The other voice of anti-Sandinista opposition has been La Prensa, the Chamorro family newspaper that was also the most influential opposition to Somoza. In 1978 the murder of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Cardenal -- still unsolved -- catalyzed nationwide resistance to Somoza. However, by 1980, the Sandinistas were quashing La Prensa's stories, especially one concerning their implication in the murder of Jorge Salazar Arg"uello, a popular farmer who led an agricultural co-op opposed to Sandinista land appropri ations and fiscal policies.

Christian cinches her case against the Sandinistas by reporting on a secret speech given by Humberto Ortega, the leader of the Army (and brother to junta coordinator Daniel Ortega) -- and, in Christian's view, the most powerful man in Nicaragua -- on June 23, 1981. Speaking to Sandinista Army and militia officers, Ortega declared that while ``inspired by sandinismo . . . we are guided by the scientific doctrine of the revolution, by Marxism-Leninism.'' The speech was later distributed by t he government, although, according to Christian, ``the most controversial parts had been deleted.''

Christian points out that virtually all the high-ranking Sandinistas have received training in Cuba or the Soviet Union (or both). The much-touted literacy campaign was organized by the Cubans, in part to gain political intelligence, she says. The Sandinistas' campaign against the Miskito Indians on the Atlantic side of Nicaragua has helped open a base of air operations closer to Cuba.

Christian's book is not without its faults or omissions. She rarely concerns herself with attitudes of the populace. When she does, the statements carry a condescending and callous attitude of her own, as in the statement: ``Earthquakes, hurricanes, and perpetual intense heat have taught Nicaraguans that unless one can afford a really substantial house, it is best not to put much bother into shelter.'' She tends to skim over the furor surrounding the conduct of the ``contras'' (anti-Sandinista guerrilla s), instead of concentrating on their lack of unity, which she attributes to wildly opposing personalities.

Nevertheless, ``Nicaragua: A Revolution in the Family'' is an important book.

It's one all Americans should read before accepting the myth that the Sandinistas are synonymous with the Nicaraguan people. Praise is due Christian for having written a tough-minded, complex chronology of events that all too often have been the occasion for apologies rather than analysis.

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