July 4 came recently in the United States, the holiday that helps mark the American Revolutionary War. In Gettysburg’s sister city of Leon, in Nicaragua, this month of July marks a different revolution, one far more recent and whose legacy is very much uncertain. In Nicaragua, the “Triumph of the Sandinista Revolution” is celebrated on July 19, with much the pomp of Independence Day in the U.S. This year is the 40th anniversary of the 1979 overthrow of the Somoza family dictatorship that controlled the country from 1936 onward. The United States propped up the Somozas for over four decades largely due to the Cold War. There is a famous if perhaps apocryphal quote that either Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt or John Foster Dulles once said of Somoza, “Yes, he’s an SOB, but he’s our SOB.” The uncertainty of who said it means that any one of them could have said it.
The Sandinista Revolution in 1979 led into the Contra War of the 1980s, since the administration of Ronald Reagan saw the Sandinistas as communists rather than freedom fighters, the sobriquet given by Reagan to the Contra side during almost a decade of civil war that left over 30,000 dead in a country of four million people. There was a tentative peace deal in 1987, but the true end of the Contra War and the first Sandinista era came by way of a 1990 election that the Sandinista president, Daniel Ortega, did not feel he could possibly lose. He lost, and that made world headlines largely as a triumph of U.S. policy, not for what it meant in Nicaragua.
This was one of the last times Nicaragua has been world news. An exception was when Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president of the 1980’s, was reelected in 2007 after three straight losses. He has held that post ever since, changing the constitution and electoral policies at whim to stay in power. Nicaragua also made the news again in April of 2018 and for months afterward. Protests against the Sandinista government led to the deaths of over 300 people and an ongoing crackdown on the opposition, although almost all of over 500 political prisoners were released last month, some after nearly a year in jail.
The Sandinistas of the 1980s and of today brought millions out of poverty, improved health care beyond anything prior and in two years after 1979 changed a country with an illiteracy rate of over 80 percent to one with a rate of about 10 percent. The historical legacy of a Revolution that began in Nicaragua on July 19th, forty years ago, is not yet written, but the blood spilled in 2018 will someday be a part of that history. For many U.S. citizens today of red and blue states, the legacy of the American Revolution is still unclear as well, almost two and half centuries later. What “revolution” will mean to future generations, of Nicaragua, the U.S. and others, will become a question ever harder to settle given opposite sides today, polarized and furious. Gettysburg, as the epicenter of a Civil War, knows what such history means, and how much pain there is in answering such questions. Its sister city of Leon in Nicaragua will someday ask the same questions and need its own answers.