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Barefoot children played in front of Sandinista soldiers stationed in San Fernando, close the Honduras border in northern Nicaragua, December 1986.
Barefoot children played in front of Sandinista soldiers stationed in San Fernando, close the Honduras border in northern Nicaragua, December 1986. Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/file 1986/Globe Staff

NICARAGUANS ARE RELIVING a nightmare. Forty years ago, they deposed the brutal Somoza family dictatorship. But over the decade of Sandinista rule following the coup, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans were killed in a brutal civil war. Now the country is facing a strikingly similar situation: President Daniel Ortega is, by all measures, an autocrat, and his police and para-military squads have killed more than 300 people since anti-Ortega protests broke out last year.

Countless Nicaraguans are fleeing for their lives and seeking asylum in the US.

Pro-democracy Nicaraguan students are eager to find an effective way to oppose Ortega’s blatant autocracy; the answer may be found in the past.

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This month, at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, where I work, Nicaraguan elders — former leaders of the opposing Sandinista and Contra movements — met with Nicaraguan youth leaders to grapple with mistakes of the past. Never have these people appeared in public to assess their shared responsibility for the tragedy. Now grey-haired and aging, they are seeking a reckoning with history and their own souls.

When the Sandinistas overthrew the odious Somoza regime in 1979, they set off waves of populist jubilation around the world. But their success also terrified the Reagan administration, which saw a mortal threat in their Marxist-style policies and embrace of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Fearing the spread of Communism, the United States instigated a counter-revolution, the Contras, aimed at destroying Sandinista rule.

The Sandinistas did as much to destroy themselves. The novelist Sergio Ramírez, who played a key role in the Sandinista movement and was vice president of Nicaragua from 1984 to 1990, described the revolution he helped lead as “a sincere illusion.” Its leaders, he said, succumbed to “Leninist conceptions of power” that led them to issue orders and expect them to be obeyed as if they were religious dogma. “One great sin of the Nicaraguan revolution was to put ideology ahead of real possibilities,” he lamented. “The only way to redeem the poor was to create wealth, but placing agriculture and other key sectors of the economy under state control, and then imposing controls on business and foreign trade, led us to failure.”

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Other former Sandinista leaders who spoke over three intense days agreed that pressure from the Reagan administration helped destroy the revolution’s utopian plans. They also agreed that the decay and collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been their main foreign supporter, contributed decisively to their failure — and to their defeat at the polls in 1990.

What was dramatically new in their speeches, however, was the amount of responsibility they placed on their own shoulders.

During Sandinista rule, thousands of peasants fled the horrors of Sandinista rule to join the CIA-sponsored Contras. One who had owned a small farm said he and several neighbors fled because nearby farmers had been arrested or killed by Sandinista agents and he feared he would be next. Another described the Contras as “a massive social movement.”

In response, two members of the nine-man “national directorate” that ruled Nicaragua during the 1980s spoke. One, Jaime Wheelock, acknowledged that the policy of confiscating property controlled by the old dictatorship quickly mushroomed out of control: “The government expropriated businesses owned by people who had nothing to do with the dictatorship. Then it confiscated property from people who left the country, or who were connected to the counter-revolution. This series of actions sent the message that there was no guarantee for anyone’s property, regardless of its size or nature — which had a predictable effect on production and investment.”

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This month, at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Nicaraguan elders — former leaders of the opposing Sandinista and Contra movements — met with Nicaraguan youth leaders to grapple with mistakes of the past.
This month, at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Nicaraguan elders — former leaders of the opposing Sandinista and Contra movements — met with Nicaraguan youth leaders to grapple with mistakes of the past.Alexander Laferriere/Watson Institute

A leader of Nicaragua’s indigenous people said the Sandinistas had “tried to destroy the Miskito Indians” through torture, mass arrests, and assassination. Speaking for the Sandinistas, Wheelock said they had to accept blame for mistreating the indigenous people who live along Nicaragua’s isolated Atlantic coast. He said he and his comrades knew nothing about indigenous traditions and failed to grasp “the differences between two worlds separated by history, values, culture, aspirations, and relationship to nature and the land.”

Another former member of the Sandinista directorate, Luis Carrión, was equally self-critical. While in power, Carrion joined his comrades in condemning Contra fighters as lackeys of American imperialism. That, he admitted, was wrong. “If this was a war of foreign aggression, it follows that Contra fighters were mercenaries — and that is how Sandinista propaganda portrayed them,” he said. “This obscured the political causes of the war.”

The war raged until a peace accord was signed in 1988.

As the elders spoke, young leaders of the current uprising, now in exile but fiercely determined to topple Ortega, listened intently from the back row.

Twenty-one-year old Lesther Alemán, one the most visible figures in today’s protest movement, was the weekend’s last speaker. He said that hearing from ex-Sandinistas had left him more convinced than ever of two principles. First, his movement must remain peaceful, since armed revolution brought such pain to Nicaragua; second, it should avoid ideology and aim to create “a Nicaragua where there is room for everyone.” When asked his opinion of the founder of the Sandinista Front, Carlos Fonseca, he replied: “I admire him, but I don’t want to follow in his footsteps.”

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Sandinistas at the wall of the National Guard headquarters, Esteli, Nicaragua as seen in the 1991 documentary film “Pictures From a Revolution.”
Sandinistas at the wall of the National Guard headquarters, Esteli, Nicaragua as seen in the 1991 documentary film “Pictures From a Revolution.” Susan Meiselas

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.