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After Revolution

After Revolution
Mapping Gender and Cultural Politics in Neoliberal Nicaragua

How Nicaragua's least powerful citizens have fared since hte Sandinista revolution.

November 2001
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314 pages | 6 x 9 | 40 b&w photos, 3 maps |

Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution (1979-1990) initiated a broad program of social transformation to improve the situation of the working class and poor, women, and other non-elite groups through agrarian reform, restructured urban employment, and wide access to health care, education, and social services. This book explores how Nicaragua's least powerful citizens have fared in the years since the Sandinista revolution, as neoliberal governments have rolled back these state-supported reforms and introduced measures to promote the development of a market-driven economy.

Drawing on ethnographic research conducted throughout the 1990s, Florence Babb describes the negative consequences that have followed the return to a capitalist path, especially for women and low-income citizens. In addition, she charts the growth of women's and other social movements (neighborhood, lesbian and gay, indigenous, youth, peace, and environmental) that have taken advantage of new openings for political mobilization. Her ethnographic portraits of a low-income barrio and of women's craft cooperatives powerfully link local, cultural responses to national and global processes.

  • Acknowledgements
  • 1. Introduction: Writing after Revolution
  • 2. Negotiating Spaces: The Gendered Politics of Location
  • 3. "Managua Is Nicaragua": Gender, Memory, and Cultural Politics
  • 4. A Place on a Map: The Local and the National Viewed from the Barrio
  • 5. Unmaking the Revolution: Women, Urban Cooperatives, and Neoliberalism
  • 6. From Cooperatives to Microenterprises in the Postrevolutionary Era
  • 7. Narratives of Development, Nationhood, and the Body
  • 8. Toward a New Political Culture
  • 9. Conclusion: Remembering Nicaragua
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Florence E. Babb is Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Professor of Anthropology and Women's Studies at the University of Iowa.


Nicaragua captured the world's imagination and received almost obsessive attention following the victory of the Sandinista revolution two decades ago. This small Central American nation's success in ending a forty-three-year dictatorship and its efforts to bring about a broad program of social transformation that included agrarian reform, restructured urban employment, and wide access to health care, education, and social services was observed from afar with both admiration and consternation. Within Nicaragua, opposition to the Somoza dictatorship was broad-based, but lines were drawn early on between supporters and critics of the revolutionary government that came to power, even when family loyalties were divided. Political differences, cutting across social class and gender lines, were well established in the Sandinista decade of the 1980s, and they have persisted, often taking new forms, in the market-driven neoliberal decade of the 1990s.


After Revolution focuses on the experiences of low-income residents of Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, through a turbulent time when they were players on a local, national, and international stage. The process of social, political, and economic change undertaken in the country was dramatically altered by external interventions as well as by unresolved internal problems during the revolutionary period. This book considers the transition to the post-Sandinista 1990s, as elected governments have rolled back state-supported reforms and introduced measures that have favored the development of the market economy to the disadvantage of working-class and poor, women, and other non-elite groups. Yet this decade has also seen the growth of civil society made up of grassroots, nongovernmental organizations and social movements constituted by the revolution's new social subjects. Often, the very groups disfavored by current policy have taken advantage of new openings for political mobilization.


Women and, more broadly, gender relations are central to the arguments advanced in this work. The changes brought about with the Nicaraguan revolution and following it are shown to have clearly differentiated implications for women and men, due in no small measure to the continued responsibilities of women at home. Indeed, household duties have become more onerous as structural adjustment policies vital to the neoliberal development model have resulted in the reduction of state support for social services and of employment opportunities and wage levels. In the context of persistent gender inequality and growing social conservatism, working women are often encouraged by men and by the state, especially if they have young children, to give primary attention to family obligations. The contradictions this situation presents, both to the economic system that depends on women's participation and to women themselves, will be apparent in the research offered here. Also apparent will be the active manner in which some women and others in vulnerable positions are negotiating the terms of neoliberalism and making claims on new social spaces—in ways that are profoundly influenced by their personal and national histories.


There is much that is unique to Nicaragua and there is also much in the experience of the country that resonates beyond its borders. I will have occasion to make comparisons with other post-revolutionary societies and with other nations that have followed the neoliberal development model. The situation of low-income women and all who are disenfranchised in the Nicaragua of the 1990s has much in common with that of subaltern groups in other areas where structural adjustment and conservative social agendas have been put in place. More positively, the recent course of events in Nicaragua has influenced and been influenced by the progressive cultural politics of other regions, in Latin America and elsewhere. As such, I expect that the implications of this study will embrace a far wider area than Managua or Nicaragua alone.


Some striking developments of the past ten years in Nicaragua bracket the period I will examine and offer a brief glimpse of the project that follows. Two quite different events that occurred in the early months of my research were to be watersheds in recent history. In March 1991, the government announced a "maxi-devaluation" of the currency designed to stabilize the grossly inflated economy, following the neoliberal program that had for a decade been producing harsh effects elsewhere in Latin America. That same month, a "Festival of the 52 Percent" celebrated International Women's Day by parting ways with the mass women's association of the Sandinista party, bringing together a number of feminist groups and women's work cooperatives for several days of passionate cultural and political activity. In that context of abrupt economic adjustment and feminist rupture, I met a number of the women who were to be central to my project.


There are also startling juxtapositions as events ranging from the tragic to the absurd have marked the close of this neoliberal decade. In October 1998, Nicaragua and its neighbors were hit by the terrible devastation of Hurricane Mitch, whose effects will long be felt throughout the region. Nevertheless, a month later, public officials in Managua were celebrating the grand openings of a new commercial center catering to a small elite and a McDonald's restaurant, both hailed as welcome signs of modernity. Such disparate developments are common at the close of the twentieth century and the irony is not lost on Nicaraguans, who are organizing in civil society to respond to the new conditions of struggle.


The present situation in Nicaragua must be understood in relation to the country's past, so let us turn to consider the historical setting for this period of contradictory developments and uneasy transitions from dictatorship to revolution to neoliberal market economy. What follows is a brief look at the broad sweep of Nicaraguan history, highlighting some recent developments that will be taken up in later chapters. My objective is to give readers who are unfamiliar with this history some necessary background to the study.


The Historical View


Though it is only about the size of my home state of Iowa, Nicaragua is culturally and geographically diverse. Known as the "land of lakes and volcanoes," this tropical country forms part of the Central American Isthmus, bordered to the north by Honduras and to the south by Costa Rica. Along its southern boundary, the San Juan River connects the Caribbean with Lake Nicaragua, leaving just ten miles of land to extend from Altantic to Pacific coasts, a characteristic that made Nicaragua an early contender for a canal, before U.S. and other interests focused on Panama. Nicaragua and the region had long been a location of wider geopolitical interest and continued to be for some years.


Colonized by the Spanish, the Pacific area of western Nicaragua is the most heavily populated, and its residents are generally referred to as mestizos, or Spanish speakers of mixed European and Indian descent. Though use of this term suggests a unified national identity, it masks the cultural and ethnic differences found among the urban and rural people who live in this region that spans coastal regions, mountains, and cities in the interior. Researchers have brought attention to the myth of "Nicaragua mestiza," demonstrating that indigenous peoples, cultures, and communities continue to have a significant presence in the Pacific area as well as in the Atlantic Coast region. Diversity is more apparent on the broad but less populated Atlantic (or Caribbean) Coast, which came under British rule. The African diaspora brought about with slavery in the Caribbean resulted in an English-speaking African-Nicaraguan "Creole" people concentrated particularly in the area around Bluefields. Culturally and linguistically diverse indigenous groups along this coast and north to the Honduran border include among others the Miskito, whose conflict with the Sandinistas was much discussed in Western media. Although the region attained some independence under the terms of the Constitution and the Autonomy Law of 1987, it continues to suffer from political marginalization at the national level.


Located in the Pacific region between Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua, the city of Managua now dominates the country, but this is a fairly recent phenomenon. The nearby colonial cities of León and Granada were founded in 1524, soon after the Spanish arrival in what is now Nicaragua, and remained part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico) until Central American independence was declared in 1821. Nicaragua left the Central American Federation in 1838, declaring its own independence. The two cities vied for power in the nineteenth century during a prolonged period of contention between the Liberals, identified with León and its merchants and professionals, and the Conservatives, identified with Granada and its landed aristocracy and rural workers. Managua was declared a city and, six years later in 1852, the capital of Nicaragua in an effort to quell the rivalry and contribute to national unity. Nevertheless, the Liberals invited American adventurer William Walker to join their forces against the Conservatives. He defeated both and declared himself president of Nicaragua, ruling from 1856 to 1857 before he was routed by allied Central American forces.


In 1893, the Liberals came to power and introduced reforms under the government of José Santos Zelaya, but U.S. intervention again changed the course of Nicaraguan history as a Conservative government was installed. The Liberals, under Benjamín Zeledón, led a rebellion that was subdued when the U.S. Marines landed at Corinto in 1912. The Marines remained in Nicaragua (except for a brief departure) until 1933, by which time they had organized and trained a National Guard. During the period of American occupation, a civil war again pitted Liberals against Conservatives. In 1927, all but one general, the Liberal Augusto César Sandino, agreed to an armistice. Sandino demanded the Marines' withdrawal and when that did not occur, he led troops to the mountains to prepare for guerrilla war. The effort became broader and embraced an anti-imperialist politics, winning the support of international observers. Inspired by various leftist intellectual and activist currents, Sandino and his army fought the Marines and the National Guard until the United States withdrew from the country. Sandino negotiated a peace settlement with President Juan B. Sacasa, but in February 1934 the head of the National Guard, Anastasio Somoza, had Sandino assassinated and many of his supporters massacred.


The Somoza family regime (1936-1979) began when Anastasio Somoza García (later succeeded by two sons, Luis and Anastasio Somoza Debayle) overthrew his uncle, Juan B. Sacasa. Corrupt and prone to using force, the Somozas and the National Guard grew wealthy and powerful at the country's expense and were widely feared and hated. In 1961, inspired by Sandino and by the victory of the Cuban revolution two years before, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was founded to oppose the oppressive regime. Under its banner, a popular movement of students, workers, and peasants emerged to protest the poverty and injustices experienced by the vast majority in the country. Following a devastating earthquake in 1972 that destroyed much of Managua, the cruel mismanagement of aid turned even more Nicaraguans against the Somoza government. Members of the middle and upper classes joined urban and rural working class and poor in seeking an end to the dictatorship. Overcoming internal differences in political orientation, the FSLN led the popular resistance to a general insurrection that culminated in victory in July 1979. A national directorate of nine men headed by Daniel Ortega took control of the government two days after the last Somoza dictator fled the country; women were active in the revolutionary struggle, but no woman held a seat on the FSLN's directorate while the party was in power.


The decade of revolutionary government (1979-1990) began with the exuberance of its youthful leadership, a commitment to political-economic transformation, and a passion for social justice—though class tensions arose early on when the Sandinistas' priority of redistributing resources in the interest of the poor majority threatened to undercut the privilege of the middle and upper classes. Agrarian reform, food price subsidies, housing, universally available health care and education were areas that received the most attention. Sectoral organizations were established to oversee the implementation of Sandinista policy and vision at the neighborhood level, as well as among rural laborers, urban workers, artisans, youth, and women. While inspired by the example of socialist societies and desiring to bring about a thoroughgoing process of state-led change, the Sandinistas tolerated private enterprise in the new "mixed economy." Yet their reliance on popular, mass organizations to carry out the will of the government concealed a certain verticalism, top-down administration that later received heavy criticism among the grassroots as well as within the FSLN party.


Relations with the United States had an early and pronounced effect on Nicaraguan politics during the Sandinista decade. Whereas the Carter administration accepted the revolutionary government with cool resignation, eighteen months later the Reagan administration came on the scene and viewed the Sandinistas with alarm as an extension of Soviet communism. Interventionist politics prevailed through the decade, as the U.S. trained and supported a counter-revolutionary (Contra) army to wage war against its own government and cut off aid and trade relations with the country. The war and economic embargo made it increasingly difficult for the Sandinista government to pursue plans for innovative social programs; a less democratic stance was sometimes taken as defense was favored and other objectives were set aside.


Notwithstanding the great achievements of the Nicaraguan revolution, from the vantage point of the 1990s it is evident, for example, that local initiatives were often subordinated to party interests, feminist and gay organizing were suppressed, and major policy decisions such as the structural adjustment of 1988 were made without sufficient consultation. Analysts within and outside the Sandinista party are still in disagreement over how far democratization might have been pursued under conditions of war and economic crisis—and what difference it might have made in the 1990 elections.


As it turned out, unlike 1984 when a democratic election supported the continued leadership of Daniel Ortega and the FSLN, 1990 saw the surprising election of Violeta Chamorro, representing the UNO (United National Opposition) coalition of 14 parties. In hindsight, Nicaraguans' yearning for peace and economic security carried the vote, coupled with increasing criticism of the Sandinista government's management of the crisis. A gender gap in the vote, with more women favoring Chamorro, suggested that the revolutionary leadership had paid too little attention to the disproportionate effects of economic hardship and political turmoil on women.


Yet, despite President Chamorro's willingness to compromise with the FSLN, which continued to be the strongest political party in the country, her government introduced stabilization and adjustment measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that were crushing to the majority of Nicaraguans. The Contra war and economic embargo came to an end as expected, but U.S. aid was not as readily forthcoming as had been hoped. Moreover, the social impact of cutting back the state sector and developing the market economy—hallmarks of neoliberalism—was detrimental to a broad base of the population. The devaluation of the currency brought soaring inflation under control, but unemployment reached alarming levels and the prices of newly available goods made them unattainable to all but the elite.


During the first half of the 1990s, the Sandinista party regrouped and considered what role it would play once it was out of power and alternately acting to oppose or collaborate with the government. Recognizing the error of too much centralization, popular organizations such as the neighborhood CDS's (Sandinista Defense Committees) and AMNLAE (the mass women's organization) had been granted somewhat greater autonomy even before the election. But within these groups there were demands for still greater independence that were unheeded by the party, leading some to form alternative associations. The tension within the FSLN over how much decision-making to turn over to the grassroots continued until 1995, when the party split into two factions, the more orthodox FSLN and the newly-formed MRS (Sandinista Renovationist Movement), which called for more democratization within the terms of the changed national situation.


The weakened Sandinista party was unable to recapture the presidency in the 1996 elections, which brought Arnoldo Alemán to power. Formerly the mayor of Managua, this populist right-wing politician won the support of some Nicaraguans with his campaign to modernize and improve the city. Others were dismayed by his apparent lust for erasing evidence of the revolution and for carrying out, as president, a plan of further neoliberal development. During the final years of the twentieth century, Alemán's government continued to promote free enterprise in a competitive global context while his country suffered from still higher unemployment and underemployment, poor standards of health and declining levels of education. He revealed the callous nature of his presidency most dramatically when he failed to act expeditiously in response to Hurricane Mitch. As we will see, the response of many Nicaraguans has been to turn once again to popular and nongovernmental organizations, as civil society presents the best prospects for confronting the nation's need for economic and social justice.


This book's title, After Revolution, reflects its central focus on the years following the victory of the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979 and, particularly, following the Sandinista decade that ended with the elections of 1990. My research was carried out through the 1990s, a period of transition which saw the rolling back, or unmaking, of the revolution to a significant degree. Nevertheless, there is much of the revolution that has endured and even deepened since the FSLN lost power, including forms of democratic participation and respect for political pluralism. Thus, when I say after revolution, I do not intend to present the revolution as something static and now consigned to history, but rather as something that has been in process and has undergone change—sometimes for better, other times for worse—and that continues to give shape to local and national politics. Without a doubt, there is much to regret in present-day Nicaragua, much that has been lost, but new political cultures are building upon the past and enabling new generations to construct their own revolutionary visions for the future.


Reading the Revolution


Given the multitude of meanings attributed to Nicaragua within the country and in the world, past and present, it is useful to consider the ways the nation has figured as a contested site for a number of vexing political and cultural questions in a period of globalization. Depending on one's vantage point, Nicaragua has been the subject of longing or lament, hope or fear in a radical process of social transformation. Judgments about the success or failure of the Nicaraguan revolution in overcoming past injustices and inefficiencies have often clashed, just as discussions of democratization and citizenship have frequently foundered on disagreements over how inclusive the political process has been. News of the Sandinista victory was celebrated by the left in Latin America and throughout the world. Solidarity groups in the U.S. as elsewhere were quick to respond and many individuals and brigades would travel to see the revolution and support it over the decade of transformation and, later, resistance. Academics as well as activists became part of the revolutionary project, many turning from other research agendas in order to do so. Writers, artists, economists, and engineers were among the diverse group that contributed time and energy to what they hoped would be a model of broad-based social change.


Many of those who traveled to Nicaragua during these remarkable years found that their lives were forever altered by their experiences in the country. North American feminist writer and poet Adrienne Rich wrote a groundbreaking essay on the politics of location in 1984, a year after a trip to Nicaragua. There, she came to appreciate the way that "a place on a map is also a place in history" (1986:212) and the importance of "recognizing our location, having to name the ground we're coming from" (ibid.:219). In Nicaragua, she wrote, "I could feel what it means, dissident or not, to be part of that raised boot of power, the cold shadow we cast everywhere to the south" (ibid.:220).


Nicaragua was also the staging ground for an analysis of "women's interests" offered by British socialist feminist Maxine Molyneux (1986), who developed her thesis of practical and strategic gender interests based on experiences in Nicaragua in the early 1980s. That framework, advanced to assess how well revolutionary societies have addressed women's concerns, has been much debated among scholars concerned more broadly about the situation of women. While some found her distinction between women's struggles over immediate, practical interests such as food, housing, and employment and longer-term strategic interests in transforming gender relations useful, others argued that the two are often intertwined, especially in third world societies. Here, however, it is most notable that Molyneux's experience led her to insights from "revolutions such as Nicaragua's which afford no simple conclusions because of the severe pressure they are under, the short span of the revolutionary governments, and the resulting unevenness of their records, especially in relation to women" (1986:282-283).


Well-known feminist writer and poet Margaret Randall made her home in Nicaragua for several years in the 1980s after living for more than a decade in Cuba. As a North American-born activist, she devoted attention in both countries to the changing position of women in revolutionary society. Her conversations and interviews with Nicaraguan women led her to raise increasingly critical questions about the revolution's commitment to democratizing gender relations, though she remained a partisan, loyal to the principles of Sandinista politics. (Randall 1981, 1992, 1994)


From another shore, Indian writer Salman Rushdie traveled to Nicaragua for several weeks in 1986 and returned to London to write a memoir of his journey there. As he noted, he knew of the tendency of revolutions to "go wrong," and of "starting with idealism and romance and ending with betrayed expectations, broken hope" (1987:12). Although he was in the country only a brief time, his encounter affected him deeply enough that in the end, he acknowledged with admiration, he had no choice but to write a book. He concluded, "I had left Nicaragua unfinished, so to speak, a country in which the ancient, opposing forces of creation and destruction were in violent collision. The fashionable pessimism of our age suggested that the destroyers would always, in the end, prove stronger than the creators, and indeed, those who would unmake the Nicaraguan revolution were men of awesome power" (Rushdie 1987:168).


Like Rushdie, Mexican writer and journalist Alma Guillermoprieto (1995) went to Nicaragua questioning how far the revolution had come in democratizing the nation. Her visit came at the time of the 1990 elections, when the population was struggling to make sense of the political upset. Noting the problems that the Sandinistas had faced as they sought to overcome the vast inequalities and underdevelopment under Somoza's government, she observed that the opposition's promise of peace and an end to the military draft, along with the likely end of the U.S. economic embargo, gave Violeta Chamorro the moral authority to capture the vote. Guillermoprieto's report of a demoralized nation seeking reconciliation despite fundamental differences suggests the powerful impression the place left on visitors.


Photojournalist Susan Meiselas (1981) left an unforgettable portrait of Nicaragua during the year preceding the Sandinista victory, 1978-1979, and then returned to make a film as the country was in transition a decade later. Her political documentary, "Pictures from a Revolution" (1991), evokes the memories of those she photographed earlier, some heroic and others bitter, but all reflecting on what the revolution was and what it might have become. As an internationalist who shared the hopes of the revolution, Meiselas commented ruefully in the aftermath of the 1990 elections on the meanings of the revolution, "a dream for some... much more for Nicaraguans."


These are only a few of the many sympathetic accounts of the revolution that reached a wider public. Nevertheless, the Western media were far less sympathetic in general, and often reflected a harshly critical view of the Sandinista government and of Nicaragua as a place that had gone out of control. In the United States in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan's fear that Nicaragua was in "our own backyard" and presented a grave threat to national security was the view that dominated public discourse as shaped by the media. Frequent distortions and fabrications served to underwrite the training and directing of the Contra forces and also the cutting off of loans to the rebel republic. Even in the post-Sandinista 1990s, conservative politicians in the U.S. have taken every opportunity to oppose aid to Nicaragua when they can show evidence of continued FSLN influence. Thus, it stands as a tribute to the Nicaraguan nation that broad-based international support for the revolution and its democratic ideals was so very strong.


Arriving Late for the Revolution


My own relationship to Nicaragua and my writing of this book reflect my desires, hopes and preoccupations for a small country that courageously attempted to change the course of history. In July 1979, I was a graduate student writing a dissertation based on research in Peru, a country facing economic crisis and soon to be engulfed in political conflict amounting to civil war, and preparing to take my first teaching job. I shared the angst of many of my peers who sought to pursue their activist commitments as well as academic scholarship; as a member of Latin American solidarity groups, particularly Action for Women in Chile, I struggled to reconcile my anti-imperialist and feminist politics with my professional development.


I recall the summer evening in Buffalo, New York when a friend and I sat talking outdoors at a café and learned of the Sandinista victory. After more than four decades of the Somoza dictatorship, backed by the United States, a popularly supported revolutionary movement had successfully seized power. I shared the euphoria of a generation that had come of age during the Vietnam War and longed for examples of people's triumphs of self-determination. Beginning at that time two decades ago, Nicaragua—like Cuba twenty years before—came to figure for many around the world as a beacon that other countries might follow.


My experience in Peru in 1977 had come at a time when that country's experiment in "revolution," ambivalent though it may have been under President Velasco (1968-75), had taken a rightward turn. My return trips in the 1980s were during a time of increased tension as the military and the insurgent Shining Path faced off, and violence in the Andes and in Lima escalated. Like a number of anthropologists working in Peru, I turned my attention elsewhere when the country became too dangerous to continue my Andean research. Somewhat ironically, this provided the opportunity to visit Nicaragua, which was still regarded by many as a "hotbed" of political activity.


In retrospect, I've come to think of myself as a latecomer to revolutions. Having missed the radical reformist years of the early 1970s in Peru, I studied the social impact of economic crisis in the country. I had had a similar interest in the Cuban revolution, the most far-reaching and enduring in the hemisphere, and as a new faculty member at Colgate University I arranged a study group to Cuba for Winter 1980. Then the Mariel exodus forced cancellation of the trip and I did not visit the island until 1993, when Cuba was in the throes of the "Special Period," a time of austerity during its worst postrevolutionary economic crisis. Again, I was too late to see the revolution in its heyday, but I surely was acquiring an appreciation of the similar struggles of Latin Americans who had achieved so much against the odds and who fought stubbornly against their losses.


I made my first trip to Nicaragua in 1989, when it too was confronting economic hardship and political opposition. The Sandinistas were suffering from the effects of the U.S. embargo and the Contra war and had imposed structural adjustment measures, significantly downsizing and cutting back services provided by the state. Support for the revolutionary government appeared strong, nonetheless, and preparations for the 1990 presidential elections suggested an easy reelection for Daniel Ortega. What virtually everyone regarded as a difficult period for the Sandinista government turned out to be its final hour, however, as the UNO coalition's candidate, Violeta Chamorro, came to power.


By this time, I had been fortunate enough to receive funding for several years of continuing research in Nicaragua. I made trips there every year from 1989 through 1993, then returned in 1996, 1998, and 2000, staying from a few weeks to several months at a time, totaling over a year's time in Managua. My original proposal to study urban women workers in the second revolutionary decade had to be altered in light of the many reversals in the economy and society, and I shared the dismay of many Nicaraguans and their supporters during that time. But I also found that the historical experiences of women and men during the revolution had prepared them in unique ways as social subjects who would confront the political and economic transition that was under way in the country. From my research site in Managua, I have observed and documented cultural responses to neoliberalism, introduced by the UNO's more conciliatory government and then deepened by the right-wing government of Arnoldo Alemán's Liberal Alliance, which captured the 1996 election. Though international attention to Nicaragua has waned substantially since the Sandinistas lost power, it may be precisely after the revolution that the long struggle for democratization and economic justice will be waged. As this book will show, civil society and emergent social movements are offering an alternative to despair as a new political culture gains force in the country.


Writing After Revolution—Mapping this Book


My research in Managua began by considering the political-economic transition in Nicaragua following the 1990 elections, particularly as low-income women workers were affected. I identified four urban cooperatives that I revisited many times over the course of my study in order to see how women were faring in work settings that originated in the Sandinista period. In addition, I visited trade union organizations, government offices, and research centers in an effort to collect material that would allow me to make sense of the dramatic change in the country. I also developed a special relationship with one neighborhood, or barrio, where I've stayed in recent years, and where I gathered ethnographic material and conducted interviews with residents, many of them participating in the informal (unregulated) economy.


While I continued in this general research direction, I also followed the social movements that were emergent in Nicaragua in the 1990s. The revitalized women's movement and the growing gay and lesbian movement were of special interest to me, though I was also impressed by the indigenous, environmental, and other movements that were gaining visibility in the country. I came to realize that these movements were not unrelated to my research, but indeed could be understood as a cultural response to neoliberalism and new terms of struggle in Nicaragua. In time, I was able to appreciate the opportunity that the movements offered civil society to define a "new way of doing politics" and to broaden the process of democratization that was begun under the Sandinistas.


In a number of ways, I came to consider my project a multi-sited ethnography. First, I was interested in several vantage points from which we may view Nicaragua. I frequently had occasion to consider the ways that international attention to Nicaragua has framed our understanding of the country's experience. Not surprisingly, many of my initial impressions of Nicaragua came from the U.S., from the media and from left political organizations. I followed the competing discourses concerning Nicaragua at the national and international levels during the period of my research. In part, this was facilitated by my double affiliation with two institutions during my early years in Nicaragua. Both the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) and the Instituto Centroamericano de Administración de Empresas (INCAE) lent support, giving me the opportunity to associate with a Jesuit, Sandinista-oriented university on the one hand and a neoliberal-oriented graduate school of management on the other.


In addition, I maintained multiple sites of study in the sprawling city of Managua. This city, with a population of more than one million, is a vast urban space that has grown even larger since it was devastated by the earthquake in 1972. I relied heavily on a series of cars and trucks in the course of my work to travel from one end of the city to the other as I visited cooperatives, research centers, ministries, women's centers, and people's homes. Over the years of my research, I lived in working class and middle class neighborhoods in several areas of the city, with a Miskito Indian family from the Atlantic Coast, with a professional woman and her children from a well-established Managua family, and with "internationalist" activists and researchers like myself. During the two summers that my son spent with me, I learned much about childcare, schools, and the amusements the city holds for the very young. Later, I settled in the barrio of working people and professionals where I conducted a neighborhood study, but that was only one piece of a larger project that was multiply situated.


In still another way this project is multi-layered or multi-sited. I have found during the past decade that Nicaragua has been "good to think" in terms of current political and cultural questions in anthropology and Latin American studies. Through my research there, I have been able to explore issues ranging from the politics of location, to discourses of development, to gender and sexual identities in a post-revolutionary society. I conceive of this book as a series of essays, a form that allows me to advance most fruitfully several key perspectives as I bring forth a body of research collected over a decade. I do not attempt to offer the sort of detailed analysis of Nicaragua's history and politics that others have done so well, but rather to engage in several focused conversations on subjects of current relevance not only to Nicaraguans, but to all of us. I hope readers will find as I have that Nicaragua offers a rich staging ground for discussions of contemporary scholarship and of some of the most salient issues of our day, in Nicaragua and beyond. They should also discover that while my approach is multi-sited, my overall objective is to contribute to an understanding of Nicaragua as a place that not long ago staked its future on a process of social transformation and that in the aftermath of revolution has dared to reimagine itself once again as a more democratic nation.


The next chapter sets forth an analysis of the politics of location in Nicaragua and introduces subjects that are developed further in later chapters. I begin with the 1990 electoral loss of the Sandinistas to the coalition government that overturned many revolutionary changes of the last decade and imposed neoliberal measures to return the country to a capitalist path. Then, I suggest that despite the initial despair experienced by many Nicaraguans over that outcome and the economic crisis that followed, a number of political and cultural openings have emerged to allow independent social movements to grow in opposition to both the government and to undemocratic practices on the left. In many cases, women have been central to these developments as those most harshly affected by recent economic policies and as activists in newly organized movements. I consider these apparently contradictory tendencies and call for an analysis that attends to both political economy and cultural politics.


In the third chapter, I discuss the changing face of Nicaragua's capital city of Managua in light of post-Sandinista efforts to erase evidence of the revolutionary past and to present a welcoming environment for foreign investors and the national elite. The use of urban space is shown to be inflected by gender and power in the neoliberal era as desires for modernity cause women and low-income residents in general to be removed from public view or located in marginal sites. Ironically, harsh conditions may be catalyzing a more unified response from civil society to address the nation's problems. The multi-layered approach offered here takes Managua as a window through which to view relations with the rest of the country and the world, pointing toward an urban anthropology that considers the city as both location of research and focus of study. As we will see, Managua is being remade in accordance with powerful interests, but this has not gone unchallenged.


The neighborhood in Managua where I stayed during my first trip to Nicaragua in 1989 became my home base in visits from 1993 onward. Chapter four presents an ethnographic portrait of the barrio and the results of my study of households there. While I draw on interviews with a number of residents, I focus on lengthier conversations and repeated visits with several individuals I got to know well over time, from a woman active with the Sandinistas and a man who is a self-styled historian, to members of a large, impoverished household that shared our block in the barrio. I hope to convey a sense of daily life in an urban area known for its mix of working class and middle class residents and its varied political support for the Sandinista and post-Sandinista governments. Much of the story revolves around current efforts to survive adversity, when so many are dependent on the informal economy to get by, and on what the barrio can tell us about the city and the nation.


Chapter five discusses in some detail the consequences of neoliberal policy and structural adjustment in Nicaragua through a consideration of low-income women working in cooperatives in Managua. A number of feminist analysts have brought needed attention to the harsh effects of neoliberalism at the level of the household, where women often bear the burden of maintaining families in the face of rising prices, reduced public services, and privatized health care in the market-driven society. Yet I suggest that while turning to the household and women's unpaid work has brought about a needed change in our thinking about economic development, it is also critical to examine the ways that women are responding to adjustment through their paid work in and outside the home. My contention is that while women often suffer the worst effects of neoliberalism both in and out of the household, they also draw strength from their recent history of social mobilization, which sets them apart from women elsewhere in Latin America.


In chapter six, I enter the discussion concerning post-socialist societies that have rapidly altered work relations and organization in order to document how Nicaragua has fared and how it may instruct us. Specifically, I consider the refashioning of cooperatives formed under the Sandinista government into microenterprises that conform to neoliberal standards. I trace the changing fortunes of the urban cooperatives that I followed through the period of my research, which included artisans, seamstresses, bakers, and welders—predominately women. Once again, we will see that while the 1990s have seen the dismantling of many revolutionary projects, the revolution left its legacy, resulting in a productive social tension among urban working women and men who are not ready to give up what they had achieved at such great cost.


Most anthropological studies of development have used a political economy model to examine efforts and outcomes of development programs. In chapter seven, I depart from that model to raise cultural questions concerning ways that discourses of development and nationhood not only reflect different political orientations but also, in themselves, influence practices and outcomes. Nicaragua during the past decade offers a useful example of the way that contentious political-economic approaches may play out discursively. I consider the major currents in discussions of microenterprises and the informal sector as development issues, and then draw on interviews with working and poor urban residents who articulate a more personal, visceral response to current conditions as these are imprinted on their bodies and minds. My objective is to bring attention to nondominant discourses that point toward alternative approaches and critiques.


In chapter eight, I consider in some greater detail the distinctly cultural responses to the political-economic transition in neoliberal Nicaragua. Here I will discuss those emergent social movements that have gone beyond the party-based organizations of the past decade, raising a number of issues that relate to cultural identity, democratization, and human rights. To different degrees, I will examine the neighborhood, women's, lesbian and gay, indigenous, youth, peace and environmental movements, as well as a formerly-Sandinista trade union organization, as these have been influential in calling for a "new way of doing politics." Civil society groups, nongovernmental organizations as well as social movements, have been important in supporting these newer initiatives, but Sandinista party loyalists have also taken note of the new life the movements offer to a nation struggling to reestablish its identity in the postrevolutionary period.


In the final chapter I ask what will be remembered about Nicaragua, as I return to and expand upon some questions raised earlier in the context of neoliberal Nicaragua at the close of the century. I reconsider the ways that ideas about Nicaragua have been mobilized in popular "remembering" of the revolution and its aftermath, in the country and outside it, and (relatedly) how the cultural landscape has shifted during this period of globalization. In addition, I seek to discover what cultural signs are on the horizon as the country struggles to recover from Hurricane Mitch, which brought about such widespread destruction. Some observers have suggested that the current post-disaster social mobilization in the country is reminiscent of the 1970s, when in the wake of a massive earthquake, political tensions led in the direction of social revolution. Without being overly sanguine about the gathering force of civil society in responding to the crisis, we may nevertheless take note of and admire the determination of Nicaraguans to do more than rebuild the same society. Their desire to call upon collective memory and reinvent themselves once again as a nation in the process of becoming more democratic, more tolerant of cultural differences, and more insistent upon a sustainable development in the interests of both people and environment gives us reason enough to take heart.


Many writers saw in the Nicaraguan revolution a new social movement, which a smaller number called "postmodern," drawing as it did on the collective efforts of a broad array of actors who sought to transform cultural meaning and representation as well as society (Beverley and Oviedo 1993). Yet as the post-Sandinista decade of the 1990s—and the millennium—has come to a close, the conditions of postmodernity under a triumphant global capitalism are still more evident in the wake of the neoliberal economic project and a fragmented Sandinista party on the one hand and the promising response of civil society and social movements on the other. Drawing inspiration from recent work that brings together the political and the cultural to better understand current developments in Latin America (Alvarez et al. 1998), my work also engages the economic in a feminist analysis of contemporary developments in Nicaragua and beyond. Ultimately, this project is more concerned to raise questions than to resolve them, as the shifting terrain of late twentieth century neoliberalism and globalization unsettles our thinking in ways that may prove most valuable in remapping our understanding of Nicaragua in the world.




“This will be a very significant contribution to gender studies, the literature on social movements, and our understanding of post-socialist societies. . . . Its clear and sensitive writing style makes it very valuable for classes and a broad audience, while its sophisticated understanding of contemporary theory on development, social movements, and discourse analysis makes it useful for more specialized readers.”
Frances Rothstein, Professor of Anthropology, Towson University


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