The Nicaraguan Revolution has come to be seen largely as a morality play, with aggrieved middle-class youths battling a vicious family dictatorship propped up by the United States. Jeffrey Gould’s book suggests a different reading of that episode. In a well-written and richly documented volume, Gould brings to the foreground social conflict in the northwestern province of Chinandega from the turn of the century to the late 1970s, showing how disparate segments of the rural poor came together in an increasingly coherent, long-term resistance to the local oligarchy and the state.
On one level, Gould’s is a classic story of agrarian rebellion. The book opens with the early protests of Chinandegan artisans, small entrepreneurs, and mill and field workers on the region’s largest sugar plantation. But the action soon shifts decisively to the settlements of smallholders, tenants, and peons at the edges of the traditional latifundia around midcentury. Agricultural modernization, particularly with the expansion of cotton and cattle production, threatened the customary paternalistic symbiosis of lord and peasant in such places as San José del Obraje, Tonala, and Rancherías. Conflicts over land led to a round of protests, culminating in the crucial campesino support for the Sandinista insurgency in the 1970s.
Gould, however, thickens the plot by exploring the political and ideological roots of these agrarian struggles. He situates the evolution of protest in the Chinandegan countryside in the context of competing elite interests locally and nationally. A dense political history details how the Somoza clan, through the 1940s and 1950s, relied on a populist strategy to check rival oligarchs and consolidate its power in the countryside. Nicaragua’s variant of populism not only raised the expectations of the rural poor but also schooled them in legal challenges, encouraged them to defy local landowners, and provided a template for organization through the official trade union movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, first seeking alliances with oligarchical factions and then attempting to monopolize power, the Somozas violently turned on their former peasant allies. But the National Guard’s repression could not undo the campesinos’ experience of what the author refers to as the long march through the institutions of Somocismo, which well prepared them for their involvement in an ultimately successful rebellion.
Gould does not consider this political journey to be overdetermined by the penetration of the market and the proletarianization of these country folk. By vivid use of oral testimony, he shows convincingly that the inhabitants of these hamlets used a constellation of class, community, and ethnic identities to craft for themselves a resilient oppositional culture capable of defying both landed elites and Somocista authorities. In the process, the campesinos appropriated and transformed elite political ideologies, from Zelaya’s volatile late nineteenth-century mix of liberal nationalism to Somocista populism. The resulting amalgam of obrerista, republican, and communitarian ideas and practices allowed them to address local concerns with great skill, and to achieve occasional successes. What’s more, it would eventually lead Chinandega’s rural poor to common ground with the middle-class Sandinistas, while ensuring that theirs would not be unqualified support once the largely city-oriented revolutionary regime was in place.
This ambitious book occasionally falters, as in its quick-brushed history of the relations between the campesinos and the FSLN. Nevertheless, it represents a major contribution to the literature on Nicaragua and provides a generous, spirited tale that advances our knowledge of the origins and nature of the insurgency and its aftermath. This work also marks the culmination of research on nineteenth- and twentieth-century agrarian history by a generation of Latin Americanists, and a departure as well. To Lead as Equals attends fully and wisely to the structural conditions that shaped social relations in Chinandega, yet simultaneously it addresses the problems of consciousness and agency through a considered use of contemporary social theory and anthropological method. In this manner, Gould succeeds admirably in enhancing the narrative power of a book that demonstrates the limits and the possibilities of campesino politics in the face of this most cruel episode of agrarian capitalism in Latin America.