Our debate with Jeremy Corbyn on Nicaragua, 1983

Submitted by martin on 4 March, 2019 - 6:13 Author: Jeremy Corbyn, Sean Matgamna
Sean Matgamna Mary Corbishley Reg Race Jeremy Corbyn

Our criticism of Jeremy Corbyn's politics is not of yesterday. From 1978, and through the early 1980s, Jeremy Corbyn wrote frequently for Socialist Organiser, a forerunner of Solidarity. The picture above shows him on the platform (to the right) at a conference organised by Socialist Organiser in September 1983, the same month as the political exchange of opinions reprinted below.

The exchange was on Nicaragua, where in 1979 the old US-backed dictatorship had been overthrown by the left-wing, Cuba-oriented Sandinista movement. Many on the left besides Jeremy Corbyn were uncritical enthusiastic for the Sandinistas.

In the debate printed below Sean Matgamna (on the platform above, on left) took issue with Jeremy Corbyn.

The exchange is particularly instructive in hindsight. Daniel Ortega, the foremost Sandinista leader from 1979 to 1990, has again been president of Nicaragua since 2007.

In his last eleven years in office, he has run Nicaragua on crony-capitalist lines, and recently faced mass popular protests. Yet the Morning Star, the periodical which Jeremy Corbyn wrote for most recently before becoming Labour leader in 2015, still supports Ortega.

Jeremy Corbyn, Socialist Organiser 144, 1 September 1983

In June 1979 the people of Nicaragua achieved what many bad considered to be the impossible dream. Over forty years of US backed dictatorship was brought to an end by the Sandinista victory.

Since then the efforts at destabilisation have been enormous. In its latest "show of force' the US government has put 6,000 ground troops on military manoeuvres in neighbouring Honduras. The US Fleet is now stationed on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of this small country.

Effectively trade is blocked by a private enterprise refusal to trade with the Revolutionary Government. The shortages pile up and the tension grows.

American financed and backed Contra forces are active on both the Costa Rican and Honduran frontiers and news has just come in of the deaths of fifteen "Campesinos" in the north following an attack on their transport.

The demands of defence of the revolution obviously have to take priority in the allocation of resources by the government. But the achievements are impressive in every field - in health education and in popular involvement in running the country

Since the 1979 triumph popular involvement in the revolution has continuously grown. The Junta lead the government but consult and work with the Council of State on all matters. The Council of State has 51 members drawn from popular organisations, trade unions, women's organisations, churches, private industry.

Before delegates are able to vote or express an opinion on the Council of State they must have been through debate within their own body.

The revolutionary changes in many aspects of society are enormous. In the Somozist past, health care was a luxury and public health care of scant importance beside the need to fill the coffers of the Somoza family. Now each Barrio (neigh bourhood) has series of local committees who deal with the collective needs of defence, public health, education and housing.

In one very poor Barrio we were able to visit, 472 families had divided themselves into 25 committees and are working together to transform ten acres of former Somoza land into a decent place to live. Their current problems are to get running water put in each house, and to ensure that the school has sufficient chairs for the children to sit on.

Problems like this did not exist in 1979 when the Somoza forces were keeping millions in abject poverty and fighting to preserve their power and wealth.

The contrasts of attitude in Nicaragus with Britain are enormous. Here, a very poor country, under threat from all sides, is actually creating employment, undertaking major rail and heat and power projects, building houses and schools, and improving health care: planning national spending for need not private profit. In Britain, incalculably wealthy by Central American standards, our government claims not to be able to afford to build houses and health centres or even to be able to maintain the existing number of hospitals.

The overriding impression is one of determination; every public building is festooned with posters proclaiming the fourth anniversary of the Sandinista victory and "Todas las armas al pueblo" (all arms to the people) as the way to defend the gains made. This spirit is proclaimed on every street and every workplace where press cuttings and information about the military situation are posted. In the street, in taxis, and in shops and markets people are delighted to talk about the gains and the problems.

There is a refreshing candour about the many difficulties. The Atlantic coast of the country. cut off from Managua and the main cities by high mountains covers half the country's land area but has only four per cent of the population. Many of them are Miskito Indians who speak a different language. 25,000 Miskitos moved to Honduras after the revolution and are now being exploited by the Contras to attack Nicaragua

The Sandinista-led government has embarked on an ambitious programme of development in both the cultural and the physical sense. For the first time a book has been produced in Miskito and efforts are under way to redress the neglect of the area, which has never received the attention it deserves from the national government: the main beneficiaries of the Atlantic Coast in the past have been the lumber and gold mining companies of New York and Chicago.

People continually ask why they are now being lectured by the United States about the need for free elections when the Somoza family's dictatorship spent nearly fifty years denying the people basic freedoms and certainly never allowed a free choice of government.

The obsession of the US administration with military and economic encirclement to smash the Nicaraguan revolution has united most of the population in determination to keep the undeniable gains and government that is actually working for them, despite all the shortages and tribulations.

There are ten political parties, of whom four make up the Popular Front in Defence of the Revolution - Socialists Social Christians, Liberals and FSLN (Sandinistas) All four proclaim a current programme of political pluralism, non-alignment and a mixed economy within national planning objectives.

The opposition parties are organised too. The equivalent of the Conservative party have a number of expensive hoardings around the country. but no tangible signs of mass support.

The Council of State has passed a number of laws on the political parties, on mass mobilisation of the population and on the media. A whole range of social legislation has gone through and is being enacted. Elections are planned to be held by 1985 and the Parties are discussing programmes and alliances.

The US administration are clearly determined to crush the Nicaraguan revolution. The never-ending stream of American journalists and Congressional delegations must realise that they are participating in the birth of another Vietnam with the US using Honduras and Costa Rica to mount the first attacks

Slavish Thus far the British government has given slavish support to the US. It is the only European government to do so. The British declaration that Nicaragua, which is honouring all its debts, is not really credit worthy means that Britain is participating in an economic blockade.

Britain has 1.500 troops stationed in Belize, which borders Honduras and Guatemala. There have been strenuous denials of British interest in the region. Yet the government recently feted ex President Duarte of El Salvador and one of the Prime Minister's advisers is on a fact-finding mission to Honduras

Help is needed. We must be aware that doing nothing will help the US to try and destroy the hopes of the brave people of this country who 90 recently rid themselves of the foul Somoza dictatorship.

Jack Cleary [Sean Matgamna], Socialist Organiser 147, 22 September 1983

Jeremy Corbyn's report front Nicaragua (SO 144) brought out clearly the tremendous advantages most Nicaraguans have gained from the anti-Somoza revolution.

It is not for the US former allies and supporters of the vampire-like Somoza family dictatorship to lecture either the people of Nicaragua, or even the Sandinistas, about democracy.

Socialists, however, should concern themselves with democracy - and if we do, we need to differentiate between democracy and paternalism, ever benevolent paternalism...

Jeremy rather uncritically described the 'consultation' and 'mass involvement' promoted by the FSLN as if it is democracy. For sure it is better than what the people got under the Somozas. But it is not democracy.

The FSLN forms a ruling political elite which, having smashed the Somoza state machine, is now master in Nicaragua. It is not in the final analysis under any sort of democratic control. The elite itself decides what it will take and what it will leave from the suggestions, criticisms, and aspirations of those whom it consults.

The core of the FSLN is of course made up of selfless people who risked their lives in years of struggle against Somoza. Nevertheless a set-up like that in Nicaragua now contains the possibility, and in certain situations the inevitability of the development of the elite into a permanent ruling caste which awards itself material privileges on top of its present political privileges and becomes, more or less completely, a self-serving Stalinist bureaucracy, or crystallises as a state capitalist class.

Right now the FSLN is far from having overthrown capitalism. For example, half the sugar production is controlled by one man.

But the FSLN elite has pretty full control. So far it has decided to let capitalism exist. It may let it continue indefinitely. It may reach an accommodation with the USA. But probably it could decide to eliminate capitalism in Nicaragua

Should this regime go the 'Cuban way' and become dependent on Cuba and the USSR – and survive US hostility - then the absence of democratic control would produce a Stalinist state like that of Cuba.

There is no reason to doubt Castro's bravery against the dictator Batista, or his sincerity and and benevolence towards the Cuban people, to whom Castro's revolution has brought great benefits - but nevertheless Cuba, under the control of the 26 July Movement elite around Castro, became a totalitarian Stalinist state, receiving about $8 million a day from the USSR.

Nicaragua today needs to overthrow capitalism, and to replace it with a system of socialism under the democratic control of the masses, led by the working class. That is not what it has now, or what any of the various possible evolutions of the elitist FSLN regime is likely to give it.

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