Peasants in Arms: , by Lynn Horton (Athens, OH: Ohio Center for International Studies, 1998)
War and Peace in the Mountains of Nicaragua, 1979-1994
Review by Adam Jones
Published (in Spanish translation) in Mesoamerica, 41 (June 2001), pp. 241-45.
"Within the voluminous literature on the Nicaraguan revolution and the war between the Sandinista government and U.S.-sponsored contra rebels, a great deal of analysis and debate has focused on policy decisions at the top levels of government both in Nicaragua and the United States," Horton writes in the appendix to Peasants in Arms. "Yet the voice of peasants from the rural communities where the war was fought has been largely absent." Her book aims "to begin to address this void." (p. 311) It does so admirably: Peasants in Arms can claim a place on the short list of indispensable books on peasant revolution in Nicaragua.
Many observers, including this one, long tended to view the contra insurgency in northern Nicaragua as a wholly-owned subsidiary of United States foreign policy. Horton does justice to the U.S.'s influential role, noting that "without access to the over \\$400 million in military aid from the United States," the insurgency would likely have consisted of only "uncoordinated, poorly-supplied local rebel groups that the FSLN [Sandinista Front] could have contained, if not completely eliminated." (p. 124) Instead, it became "one of the largest military mobilizations of peasants in Latin America since the Mexican Revolution." (p. 266) Foreign meddling aside, there was no shortage of indigenous reasons - economic, political, and cultural - for its growth.
It was, in fact, in Quilalí that a proto-counterrevolution first broke out in Nicaragua, courtesy of the bands of MILPAS (anti-Sandinista popular militias) who launched an attack on the town in July 1980, scarcely a year after the revolution had come to power. "Why," asks Horton, "did only finqueros [plantation owners] from Quilalí and neighboring zones decide so quickly that there were no peaceful channels to express their growing opposition to revolution and take up arms not as a final resort, but as virtually a first option?" (p. 110)
The reasons she adduces are numerous. They include "the municipality's history of organized violence and resistance" (p. 110) extending back to the era of Augusto César Sandino in the 1920s and early 1930s; its "unusually strong and coherent finquero sector" (p. 111), which sponsored and sustained the first counter-revolutionary outbreaks; the remoteness of the region both from the dictatorial policies of the Somoza regime and the unifying struggle of the Sandinista-led rebellion; and above all, perhaps, the extraordinarily resilient networks of "patron-client ties and mutual aid" in the municipality, which created "a climate of quiescence and a worldview of community solidarity and class harmony." Accordingly, "finquero contra leaders" were able "to forge a multiclass base of peasant support by drawing on clientelistic ties and in their discourse highlighting common elements of interior rural history, culture, and forms of production." (p. 15)
The irruption of Sandinista revolutionary ideology into these well-established rural networks provoked a dual response among peasants. On the one hand, the FSLN was able to generate "wide support among Quilalí's population" (p. 89) with its health and literacy programs, along with infrastructure projects that substantially improved the lives of residents. Even after a decade of war, a high proportion of Quilalí's population would vote for the FSLN - a significantly higher proportion, in fact, than in most other regions of the country. "At the heart of these peasants' support for the revolutionary process," writes Horton, "was the belief that the FSLN was the first government in the history of Nicaragua to support and defend the rights of Nicaragua's rural and urban poor majority." (p. 93)
Sandinista land reforms, however, proved a different matter. Though they established a series of state farms and cooperatives that formed the core of the FSLN's political and military presence in the region, the Front's predominantly urban activists also ran up against a wall of rural indifference and hostility. The failure of the Sandinistas' early land-distribution policies, with their emphasis on state farms rather than individual plots, clearly represent one of the great missed opportunities of the revolution. "By not effectively and rapidly responding to poor peasant demands for land, the FSLN failed to employ perhaps its most powerful policy instrument that could have potentially won over these peasants to the revolutionary cause." (p. 155)
By the time the FSLN realized the error of its ways and began adjusting to the more individualist preferences of the northern peasantry, in 1982-83, it was already too late to stem the tide of counter-revolution. Horton suggests that these failures "can be better conceptualized not as 'errors' subject to easy rectification, but rather as a reflection of more intractable tensions between two distinct pro-Sandinista and anti-Sandinista worldviews with conflicting perspectives on the nature of society, distribution of resources, and core values." (p. 302)
The polarization was deepened and further entrenched by the military draft that the Sandinistas introduced in late 1983 to confront the swelling contra rebellion, and by the wider process of militarization that turned Quilalí's mountains into a free-fire zone and its streets into "a sea of olive green [uniforms]." (p. 203) In the two most memorable chapters of her book, "Peasants in Arms" (ch. 6) and "Life in the War Zone" (ch. 7), Horton examines the conundrum faced by the younger males of the municipality, who found it "all but impossible ... to avoid taking up arms with one side or the other." (p. 172) Given the prevailing anti-Sandinista sentiment of many Quilalí finqueros, it was predictable that large numbers of these young men would flock to the contras. "In some rural mountain communities ... joining the contras appears to have become almost a rite of passage for a young man. By taking up arms, participating in combat, and enduring the harsh conditions of guerrilla life, a peasant demonstrated his courage and became recognized as a man in Quilalí's patriarchal society." (pp. 188-89) Meanwhile, "older men, women, and children remained behind" and "carried out everyday resistance to the revolution through such actions as feeding and sheltering contra troops, caring for wounded contra soldiers, and gathering information. In some families, even very young children acted as lookouts and carried messages and food to the contras." (p. 206)
Horton carries her tale through to the post-Sandinista era, examining the tense and convoluted process of demobilizing both contra and Sandinista military forces, and the impact of the Chamorro government's economic and political strategies on life in the municipality. "Postwar instability was ... heightened by a weak and fragmented state that was unable to respond effectively to the new demands placed upon it, a postwar economic recession, and the demobilization of thousands of former contras, who now demanded a quota of power, land, services, and guarantees of physical security." (p. 257) While armed bands of "recontras" and pro-Sandinista "recompas" roamed the countryside, urban residents sometimes sought to explore the "possibilities for the emergence of new horizontal links of solidarity among the poor around common needs and interests." (p. 258) A former Sandinista mayor asks rhetorically: "How is it possible that we are all campesinos; that we are workers; that we are family members; that we are from the same place ... and there is so much hate and resentment[?]." (p. 295)
The question could be asked about Nicaragua as a whole. Horton's book does a great deal to isolate the factors and conditions that turned Nicaraguan against Nicaraguan during the 1980s and into the 1990s. She caps her analysis with an evaluation of the contra war in the comparative context of Latin American peasant insurgencies. The military and political conflict as it played out in Quilalí, she contends, lends weight to the findings of a number of scholars of revolution, including Eric Wolf, Jeffrey Gould, James Scott, and Timothy Wickham-Crowley.(1) She stresses that "community and extended family networks may serve as powerful instruments of rural mobilization" (p. 299); that "local elites may wield political and economic power beyond their limited numbers" (p. 301); and that "the rural poor, in particular those who have insufficient access to land and who are not bound by patron-client ties, are the most likely potential supporters of revolutionary change." (p. 304) Her analysis of the lessons for strategists of revolution is difficult to dispute: "The experience of Quilalí suggests that the construction of ... rural support for radical change is facilitated by longer-term preparatory consciousness raising work with peasants in peacetime conditions; local rather than outside leadership; good knowledge of and respect for local customs and norms; flexible policies and programs that respond to the felt needs of peasants; and the ability of guerrillas or revolutionary states to ensure the basic physical and economic security of peasant supporters." (p. 310) On all these measures, the Sandinista Front fell far short of its own hopes and expectations. It thereby helped to turn a potentially limited clash between pro- and counter-revolutionary forces into a wider conflagration that produced "unremitting tension" and eventually "physical and emotional exhaustion" (p. 255), even among the FSLN's most diehard supporters.
To step into this complex and conflictive setting and earn the trust of both sides - as Horton clearly did in compiling her extensive body of firsthand testimony - is no small feat. Her balanced and empathetic treatment of her interview subjects is matched by a dispassionate scholarly tone that allows all major aspects of life and war in Quilalí to come into sharp focus. Her book is a first-rate effort that will long be consulted by those wishing to deepen their understanding of Nicaragua's "revolution in the family," and peasant rebellion in Latin America more generally.
1. See Eric Wolf, Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1969); Jeffrey L. Gould, To Lead as Equals: Rural Protest and Political Consciousness in Chinandega, Nicaragua, 1912-1979 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976) and Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); and Timothy Wickham-Crowley, Guerrillas and Revolution in Latin America: A Comparative Study of Insurgents and Regimes since 1956 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).