Revolution & Political Violence in Nicaragua

A review of In the Footsteps of Sandino: Geographies of Revolution and Political Violence in Northern Nicaragua, 1956-1979, by Robert James Sierakowski.

“In the Footsteps of Sandino” offers a compelling narrative and analysis of the socioeconomic and political-cultural geographies of revolution, state patronage and counterinsurgency, and political violence in the Segovias region of northern Nicaragua, focusing on the period from the assassination of the “first” Somoza (Anastasio Somoza García) in 1956 to the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in July 1979. Drawing from a wide array of valuable but hitherto neglected bodies of evidence housed in Managua, some 200 original oral interviews, and the expansive published literature, Sierakowski makes a series of important and original arguments about the role of social and economic geography and lived experience in shaping political consciousness, social memory, community formation, narratives of revolution, and state patronage and repression in the decades leading up to the 1979 Sandinista overthrow of the U.S.-supported Somoza dynasty and its Guardia Nacional.

Building on the work of Knut Walter, Jeffrey L. Gould, Victoria Gutiérrez-Rivera, Carlos Vilas, and other leading scholars of the Somoza years, Sierakowski pursues a bottom-up, “micro-comparative approach” to ask new questions that challenge many of the assumptions and silences on the dynamics of the Somocista state and the social-geographic processes that hindered and propelled the popular revolution that ousted it (p. 16). His main argument pivots on the relationships within and between political economy – the material social relations of labor, production, and exchange – geography and place, and political consciousness. The Segovian cities and towns most densely embedded in circuits of capital and expressions of state power, he argues, were the most receptive to revolutionary Sandinista appeals predicated on issues of class inequality and social injustice. Most of the Segovian countryside, in contrast, remained weakly penetrated by capitalist social relations and dominated by Somocista patronage networks, and thus proved resistant to Sandinista appeals. In an ironic inversion, those social-geographic spaces most receptive to Sandino’s war against the U.S. Marines (1927-1932) became the most anti-Sandinista and pro-Somoza in the 1960s and 1970s. This important and provocative argument runs directly against the grain of the teleological Sandinista narrative positing an organic continuity between the two struggles.

The main case studies are the cities of Estelí and Somoto. Estelí, “three times heroic” in the 1978-79 insurrections against Somoza, lay along the Pan-American Highway midway between Managua and the Honduran border, making the city a key hub of demographic and commercial growth in the Somoza years. As a result, its population was especially receptive to Sandinista appeals to class and social injustice. Similar processes transformed nearby Condega, with similar consequences. Somoto and its hinterlands, in contrast, remained relative economic backwaters after the rerouting of the Pan-Am Highway north through Las Manos in the 1960s. It was thus embedded in more traditional patrimonial relations between dominant landlords, the Somocista state, and the impoverished, predominantly indigenous population, on the whole deeply pro-Guardia and resistant to Sandinista appeals.

The Introduction (“The Geographical Paradoxes of Revolution and Political Violence”) sets the stage by outlining the study’s animating questions and principal hypotheses and locating these within the larger historiography, rounded out by a summary of chapters, sources, and methodology. Chapter 1 provides a solid synopsis of Segovian political-economic history through the lens of the principal questions informing the inquiry, focusing on the contrasting case studies of Estelí and Somoto from Sandino’s war against the U.S. intervention through most of the Somoza years. Chapter 2 zooms in more closely on these contrasting micro-cases, examining the “everyday mechanics” of the Somocista state locally and regionally in a range of specific instances (p. 60). Drawing on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, and other leading theoreticians of state and non-state expressions of power, here Sierakowski expands on one of the dissertation’s most important arguments: that the Somocista state “functioned primarily as a network of privilege that distributed employment and permitted illegal behavior on the part of its local allies…Rather than a house of cards merely waiting to be pushed over by rebels, Somocismo laid deep roots among city folk and peasants alike” (pp. 61-62). Chapter 3 turns to the origins of Sandinista and related popular challenges to the Somocista state in and around Estelí from the mid-1950s to 1970, particularly among urban workers, artisans, and students, in the context of the ideological ripple effects of the Cuban Revolution and the changes induced by rapid commercial growth.

Chapter 4 builds on this analysis to focus on the role of liberation theology in the Estelí area before and after the 1968 Bishop’s Conference in Medellín, Colombia, examining “the ways these ideas were taken up, re-interpreted, and acted upon by grassroots actors at particular times and in specific localities” (p. 141). Notable here is the author’s treatment of the transformations generated by the cursillos (short-term Bible-study and literacy seminars) spearheaded by parish priest and Colombian native Julio López, and the intersection of these changes with the mounting Sandinista challenge and the repressive Somocista response. Chapter 5 shifts gears to focus on the city of Somoto and its hinterlands as a key locus of support for the Somocista state and the Guardia Nacional. It asks “how [the] most impoverished and victimized sectors of society came to join the [Guardia] in its repression of the movement for change” (p. 188), especially in the wake of the Cuban Revolution and in the context of a more muscular, proactive U.S. national security doctrine as expressed in the Guardia’s counterinsurgency campaigns. Chapter 6 offers a fine-grained examination of the Somocista state’s counterinsurgency campaigns and the micro-mechanics of repression, its dense networks of secret police, spies, and informants, and the often ironic consequences of the Guardia’s extreme violence. Chapters 7 and 8 examine events in and around Estelí in the dictatorship’s final three years (1976-79), with an especially riveting account of the city’s three mass insurrections and the Guardia’s extraordinarily brutal responses. Especially compelling is the analysis of how political radicalization was propelled forward through the process of armed struggle against a ruthless foe. The Conclusion summarizes the study’s principal findings and offers brief critical commentaries on the nature of the Ortega regime of the 2000s and its relationship to both the Somocista state and previous incarnations of the Sandinistas.

Richly textured with places, people, and events, brimming with stories and anecdotes deftly linked to broader themes and arguments, “In the Footsteps of Sandino” represents an important original contribution to existing knowledge on a time and place largely neglected in the published literature. With this work, Robert J. Sierakowski firmly positions himself among a small group of “Segovian experts” while compelling further investigation into the structures and practices of the Somocista state and the popular challenges that toppled it.

Michael J. Schroeder
Department of History & Political Science
Lebanon Valley College

Primary Sources

Archivo General de la Nación, Managua
Centro de Historia Militar, Managua
Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamérica, Universidad Centroamericana (IHNCA-UCA), Managua
Author’s oral interviews

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2012. 364 pp. Primary Advisor: Robin Derby.


Image: Mural at Casa de la Cultura, Esteli, Nicaragua. Photograph by Jane Boyd, used with permission.

Leave a Reply