The Sandinistas and Nicaragua Since 1979; The Education of a Radical

Nicaragua is a country of active volcanoes, romantic poets, and Byzantine politics, a place where the tone is set by schizophrenic swings, from the lofty hopes of utopian dreamers to the sordid schemes of corrupt caudillos. In The Sandinistas and Nicaragua Since 1979, scholars sympathetic to the Nicaraguan revolution of the 1980s grapple with the transformation of the Sandinistas from youthful idealists into powerful elites enjoying unprincipled privileges. The Education of a Radical attributes this familiar transition to the limitations of political ideology and the inherent imperfections of human nature.

The contributors to the first book review the heady, hopeful days following the overthrow of the Somoza dynasty, locating the roots of the Sandinistas’ top-down centralization in the clandestine nature of the guerrilla struggle and, perhaps, in the nation’s entrenched authoritarian political culture. They lament the eventual hegemony of President Daniel Ortega and the obsessive power politics that have shaped his rule. Yet the country has witnessed many positive changes since the 1979 revolution, including the partial democratization of political and civic life, the expansion of antipoverty programs within a stable macroeconomic framework, and the pursuit of a more balanced, smarter foreign policy. McConnell’s superb essay details the ups and downs of Nicaragua’s electoral system, Eduardo Baumeister examines changes in land tenure, and Rose Spalding traces the development of social policies, which are now modeled more closely on the World Bank’s efficiency guidelines. After decades of disruptive and exhausting revolution and reform, Nicaragua is becoming a more normal country.

Johns’ book is a coming-of-age story set against the colorful backdrop of Latin American revolution, a tale of armed militias, land expropriations, and irresistible Latinas. During the ten months he spent in Nicaragua in 1983–84 conducting research for a master’s thesis on agrarian reform and searching for Che Guevara’s archetypal “new man,” Johns confronted “inconven-ient truths” about socialism—and about himself, as he struggled with adolescent insecurities and identity crises. The student radical’s youthful romanticism was upended during the course of a number of painful episodes recounted here, such as his uncomfortable confrontation with an anti-Sandinista farmer and his disillusioning interactions with ill-informed grass-roots Sandinistas. All grown up now and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, Johns concludes his brief memoir by accepting the uncertainties of life and preaching the virtue of applying realistic standards when judging human affairs.

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