This is the story of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, written by someone who—in the late 1980s—became the country’s vice-president in the Frente Sandinista de la Liberación Nacional (FSLN) government of Daniel Ortega. Sergio Ramírez later grew disillusioned with the government because he—and many others—felt that it betrayed the ethical principles that that the Sandinista movement was founded on. This book is a remembrance of his years as a Sandinista and his farewell to his companions in the revolution. It is also an account of a globally important event that the author says has been forgotten by the world and that should be remembered because it was, for a while, a genuine “shared Utopia” that transformed Nicaragua and inspired a generation, some of whom came to Nicaragua to fight the contras in the 1980s.
The title of the book (Goodbye, Lads) refers to the revolutionaries—a lot of them young men—who died in the struggle, mowed down by General Anastasio Somoza’s authoritarian government. Because the story is told by Ramírez, who was part of it all, there is an immediacy to the writing that makes you feel like you’re actually there.
Somoza’s government was finally overthrown in 1979, and the Sandinistas took over power. The revolution was unusual in that it was founded on utopian principles, with a genuine effort to implement them. Once in government, the Sandinistas did a lot for health care as well as mass literacy; the author’s children were among those who went to rural areas to teach people to read and write. And when the FSLN lost the elections to Violeta Chamorro’s party in 1990, they accepted defeat. Ramírez says the thought of manipulating the results in their favour did not even occur to them.
And of course, the FSLN had to deal with the United States meddling in the country’s internal affairs—most famously, in the Iran-Contra scandal during Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s. When the scandal broke, Ramírez was in the US and could go on TV immediately to react to the news. Jimmy Carter, unlike Reagan, supported the Sandinistas and acted as an advisor to them after he left office. During the first meeting between the Sandinistas and Carter, both sides agreed not to blame each other for the policies of their predecessors!
There are plenty of personal anecdotes which bring this story to life. When the FSLN took over power, the ambassador of Taiwan came to present his credentials. Ramírez and another colleague were the only ones from the Junta in the Government House, and refused to meet the ambassador because Taiwan had supported Somoza until the end. They were finally persuaded to meet him, and the initial coldness thawed when the pragmatic Taiwanese ambassador presented them with a cheque for $100,000 for the reconstruction of Managua, which had been badly hit by an earthquake in 1972 and never properly rebuilt because Somoza had embezzled a large part of the relief aid.
The book moves back and forth between the 1979 revolution and its aftermath, which takes a little getting used to. But I found it especially interesting as I had not known much about the Nicaraguan revolution, and Ramírez really brings it to life. The book is available in an English translation (also with the title “Adiós muchachos” ), and it’s well worth the read.