International revolution

Eline Van Ommen
Thursday, Jun 13, 2024

When I submitted my dissertation in 2019, my supervisor gave me the mug that had been on her desk for years. Printed on it were the red and black silhouettes of people waving rifles, flags, and signs in the air. And in white cursive letters, it read: “Nicaragua Must Survive.”

This was one of the hundreds of mugs sold in the 1980s by the London-based Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign to raise money for leftwing Sandinista revolutionaries. In the highly polarized context of the late Cold War, these Sandinistas sought to usher forth radical social and political change, while at the same time fighting a brutal civil war against counterrevolutionaries funded by the United States. After more than a decade of hardship, however, dreams of revolutionary change in Nicaragua had faded and the Sandinista revolutionaries lost power in elections on 25 February 1990. Today, the mug sits on my desk, next to the book whose title it inspired.

Born in 1990, only a couple weeks before the electoral loss of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), I was surprised to find out how omnipresent the revolutionaries had been in the 1980s, particularly in Europe and the Americas.

As I was conducting research for the book, I quickly realized that thousands of international volunteers had traveled to Nicaragua to work on coffee plantations, that national and local politicians had engaged in heated debates about the revolution’s ideological character, and that pro-Sandinista posters had once adorned the walls of student dorms, theaters, and community houses

across the globe. In the final decade of the Cold War, Nicaragua was hot.

In my new book Nicaragua Must Survive: Sandinista Revolutionary Diplomacy in the Global Cold War, I explain why the Sandinista Revolution, which triumphed on 19 July 1979, had such a massive global impact that even grassroots activists in the United Kingdom felt the need to produce and sell mugs for the Nicaraguan cause. I show that none of this was coincidental, but rather the result of the Sandinistas’ revolutionary diplomacy, which consciously mobilized peoples around the world for the FSLN’s cause. Sandinista ambassadors relied on a powerful mixture of cultural appeal, pragmatic arguments, and romantic narratives to strengthen the revolution in the face of a powerful anticommunist campaign. As a result, Central America became, in the words of Ronald Reagan’s controversial diplomat Jeane Kirkpatrick, “the most important place in the world.”

While the impact of the Sandinistas’ foreign policy was global, it was ultimately designed to benefit the revolution. Did it? On many occasions, yes. In the late 1970s, the guerrillas’ diplomacy helped to isolate the dictator Anastasio Somoza and provided the FSLN with the legitimacy, arms, and money needed to secure a revolutionary triumph. In the early 1980s, the Sandinistas could count on international support to fund ambitious domestic programs, including a successful literacy campaign. The Sandinista Revolution also survived the Reagan presidency (1981-1989), despite Cold War hardliner’s dedication to “stop communism in Central America.”

Ultimately, it was not enough. In the late 1980s, as international interest in revolutionary ideals declined and the Cold War ended, the civil war in Nicaragua continued. The Sandinistas failed to transform the country in the ways they had envisaged in thelate 1970s.

Excerpted: ‘Recovering the Transnational History of the Sandinista Revolution’. Courtesy: