LT: In the Bay Area, it seemed as if everyone knew someone who was doing something on Nicaragua.
RDO: Absolutely that’s because there were so many Nicaraguans here, and most of them were from Sandinista families. Ernesto Cardenal [former Sandinista Minister of Culture] grew up in Palo Alto, California. Many had served in the U.S. military. In the 1960s, Central Americans were involved in the Chicano movement. But Los Siete [a group of youth accused of killing a police officer] were Central Americans. The Bay Area was probably the center of solidarity activity. I don’t think that Nicaraguan solidarity ever grew nationally to the extent that South African solidarity did. I was very involved in it, because I was here. I went to New Mexico from 1978-80 and no one knew about the Sandinistas there. When I was doing United Nations work I got Sandinistas to UN meetings in 1978. The African National Congress was very involved in the UN system, they had observer status in the UN.
It was a good way for liberation movements to be recognized. Various liberation groups, the ANC, the PLO and the Pan-African Congress all had status in the UN thanks to the PLO pushing that through in 1972. They could build infrastructure there, learn how to do diplomacy, really they were like a governments in exile. The Sandinistas never did have that, it was a unique struggle within, not against colonialism but a standing government.
That doesn’t happen very often! Not since the Bolshevik revolution.
LT: Was there a disconnect between the Sandinista leadership, made up largely from the upper classes, and their working-class base?
RDO: There was almost a mystical relationship between Sandinista leadership and their working class base. The majority of Nicaraguan workers were agricultural, few "middle" farmers, so they were enthusiastic to form agricultural cooperatives on the lands that they had worked for wealthy land holders who fled to Miami and San Francisco following the revolution.
Among the nine leaders of the FSLN Directorate, only Tomas Borge and Henry Ruiz were from the working class. Both Jaime Wheelock and Luis Carrion were from ruling class families. The other five were not from rich families but were from families of teachers, engineers, professional families. They had all been trained by Carlos Fonseca who was an amazing teacher, a deeply democratic personality, devoted to the poor and working class.
RDO: Three factions of the FSLN formed in 1972, and sharpened after Fonseca's death in 1975. Those fault lines never disappeared. But, they were united in basing the revolution in the working class. The three factions were: Prolonged People's War, whose leaders were fighting inside Nicaragua: Henry Ruiz and Tomas Borge Proletarian Tendency, led by Jaime Wheelock, and the Insurrectional or Third Tendency, led by Humberto Ortega who was based in Havana and Daniel Ortega who was in prison in Managua, and their brother Camilo.
Yet, the FSLN never split as in other revolutionary movements. They put differences aside for the insurrection that overthrew Somoza, and divided their responsibilities according to factions, a kind of balance of power.
My first trip to Nicaragua in May 1981 was with a trade union delegation from San Francisco made up of members of the SIEU (service workers union, CWA (communication workers), Building Trades, and ILWU (longshoremen and warehouse workers), and me, for the UPC, United Professors of California. We visited every shop floor in Managua, longshoreman at Puerto Corinto, the main port, and a coffee workers cooperative in the mountains, accompanied by Sandinista officials. It was thrilling to see the equality, love, and brother/sister hood between workers. The workers considered themselves to be THE Sandinistas. I also stayed for three weeks in the CST (Sandinista Workers Confederation) hospitality house in Managua, where Sandinista labor organizers from all over the country came and went. For me, being from the working class, it was like dying and going to heaven!
LT: I was told that there was a part of the Sandinista party which argued for more decentralized governance structure, based on Workers Councils. Do you remember any of this debate?
RDO: I think the Sandinistas fundamentally supported decentralization, with power emerging from the people in their organizations, and I witnessed the tail end of two years of that process. But with the military threat from outside, from the US, and the reorganization to a war footing, naturally a command structure (and draft) ensued. Yet, the workers' militias were the fundamental basis for defense. It is painful to imagine how the Sandinista revolution would have developed had US intervention not been the main reality. I think it would have been beyond our wildest dreams of mutuality and openness.
LT: Unfortunately, many people who helped engineer the Contra counter-revolution under Reagan are back under George W Bush!
RDO: Yeah, that was one of the reasons I decided to do this book, Blood
On The Border. I had written a version of it when the Sandinistas were
voted out of power in early 1990. I had worked on it for two years. I
was writing it as a novel, but I put it aside, and then it became less
and less relevant. In the mid-nineties, no one was interested in the
story anymore. Who would read a book about Nicaragua? I began to notice
that all of these creepy people who had acted to murder thousands of
people and a revolution started to show up in all of these neo-conservative
think tanks. Places like the Project For A New American Century.