Remembering Carlos Fonseca, Architect of the Sandinista Revolution

Born on June 23, 1936, Carlos Fonseca Amador, founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, was killed in combat fighting against the troops of Nicaragua's dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle at the age of 40 in the mountains of Zinica in his native region of Matagalpa.

Carlos Fonseca Amador

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Fonseca was a fundamental link between the modern Nicaragua that emerged out of the agro-industrial cotton boom of the 1950s. The country at that time was shaped both by the victory of the rural guerrillas of General Augusto Sandino against the U.S. Marines in the 1930s and the betrayal of the peace agreements by Anastasio Somoza Garcia and the pro-imperialist dictatorship he imposed following Sandino's murder at the behest of U.S. Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane. Economically, Nicaragua remained imprisoned in the patterns of the corrupt U.S. neocolonial order and socially in the racist legacy of colonial subjugation under Spain and the oligarchic political system developed through the 19th century.

As he grew up, Fonseca absorbed the lessons of the great Honduran labor strike of 1954, of the coup against Jacobo Arbenz that same year in Guatemala and, above all, the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Throughout Fonseca's life, Nicaraguan society was highly repressive, purposefully impoverished and systemically unjust. The social climate was oppressive and the political system was totally corrupt thanks to the bipartisan complicity of Somoza's own liberals and the conservatives who were assured certain quotas of power and privilege in exchange for their support for the status quo.

Fonseca was a 20-year-old student when the first serious blow to the dictatorship took place in 1956 when Rigoberto Lopez Perez executed the dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia. Young as he was, Fonseca was among the opposition leaders most sought after by the regime's repressive forces in the aftermath of that truly watershed event. The years after 1956 saw many attempts to take up arms against Somoza Garcia's son who took over as Nicaragua's dictator. Only when Fonseca, with a determined group of other young revolutionaries inspired by the success of the Cuban Revolution, founded the FSLN was there a serious political-military movement able to plan for a liberation struggle in the medium and long term. Of that founding group, only Tomas Borge survived the fight against the dictatorship.

Borge confirmed the fundamental importance of Fonseca's visionary drive, vindicating the struggle and ideals of Sandino. Fonseca was the unacknowledged son of a member of a prominent coffee growing family and a poor rural woman who raised him and whose last name he preferred to use. In this woman, Augustina Fonseca Ubeda, he saw the sufferings of all the mothers of the people of Nicaragua. In this, Fonseca was very like Sandino who as a young child suffered the traumatic experience in a provincial jail of having to assist his mother through a miscarriage resulting from ill treatment she received during her arrest and unjust imprisonment for an unpaid debt.

In a Sandinista statement issued on May 1, 1968, Fonseca recalled that his mother, who, “came to understand and proudly admit that this son belongs to his homeland. The memories of my mother accompany me and encourage me in combat ... To the mothers of all our martyrs, we say: One day, the sun of freedom will start to shine over Nicaraguan soil — a sacred freedom that has its roots in your wombs.”

Fonseca belonged to a generation of working-class children who, in Nicaragua as well as in many other countries, were the first to have the chance of a high school education in a country whose dependent capitalist economy was in great need of more skilled labor. He took that chance and became an excellent student year after year, not in order to climb the social ladder, but very consciously to be better able to serve his people. Together with his long-life friend and revolutionary comrade, Borge, Fonseca actively participated in the political life of his school and of Matagalpa, coming into contact with the most advanced ideas of his time, especially with Marxism.

While Fonseca rejected the lack of commitment to improve the condition the country's impoverished majority among many liberal elements that opposed the dictatorship, he also reacted against what he regarded as inconsequential positions from what should have been his natural allies on the Left. Fonseca came to join the Communist Party and even visited the Soviet Union in 1957 for a youth congress, for which he was imprisoned on returning to Nicaragua. However, he became disillusioned by the party's reluctance to engage in outright confrontation with the dictatorship, let alone armed struggle.

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He would also grow increasingly disappointed by the party's inability to appreciate Nicaragua's own revolutionary traditions, in particular the struggle and experiences of Sandino and his guerrillas. Social justice, anti-imperialism and armed struggle were a uniting point for Fonseca. The existence of the oligarchic Somoza dictatorship was a product of the local capitalist elites' historic dependency on imperialist and colonial interests. So it was obvious to him and his revolutionary contemporaries that only the popular classes would lead the rest of society towards its liberation.

The regime's brutal domination in Nicaragua was imposed by the U.S.-trained National Guard, that protected U.S. imperialist interests all over Central America. So Fonseca was also very clear that securing Nicaragua's liberation implied a struggle with imperialism itself. The Somoza family's rotten, spurious regime lacked any legitimacy whatsoever. Fonseca was convinced that no reformist, social democratic style collaboration with such a regime was possible. He believed only armed struggle of and by Nicaragua's people would replace the dictatorship with a truly democratic republic.

Sandinismo is a fundamental element of Fonseca's political thought. It was thanks to his insistence that the history, figure and ideas of Sandino were incorporated in the name, the ideology and the historical definition of the FSLN, the political military movement he founded in the beginning of the 1960s which later became the movement responsible for leading Nicaragua towards its true constitution as a modern nation.

No account of the political and historical legacy of Carlos Fonseca is complete if it fails to mention the revolutionary mysticism he inherited from Sandino and the region's wider revolutionary history. Fonseca lived in an era when those committed to the ideals of social justice and national liberation knew they might well not see the day of victory with their own eyes. Like Sandino himself, Fonseca and his comrades were convinced that they, by giving their own lives, were laying the groundwork whose fruits would be enjoyed only by future generations.

The revolutionary life of Fonseca consisted of clandestine conspiracy and organizing, constant studying, spells of harsh imprisonment, torture, exile and, finally, combat. On Jan. 6, 1965, after being deported to Guatemala — the third time he received such punishment because of his struggle against the Somoza dictatorship — Fonseca wrote, “One thing the oppressors of my motherland must be sure of. They may expel my body from Nicaraguan soil, but they will never expel from my soul the decision to fight for the freedom and sovereignty of the nation, and for the people's happiness.”

Fonseca once said that Sandino was very much alive and that it was not only possible to defeat one of Latin America's bloodiest dictatorships but possible to build an organization that would allow the country to become independent and the people free. That organization was the FSLN. On July 19, 1979, three years after his death, that organization he founded brought together under its leadership almost the whole of Nicaragua's people. Together they put a triumphant end to a dictatorship they had endured for 45 years.

Since that revolutionary triumph, despite fierce opposition from imperialism, Nicaragua has fought and won many more battles. Thanks to the Sandinista Revolution, the country now has a democratic constitution and political system committed to economic, social and political democratization from the corrupt farce perpetuated under the Somoza dictatorship. Nicaragua's armed forces and police service stand out in their success in the region because their practice stems from a revolutionary, truly patriotic tradition. They are the complete antithesis of Somoza's National Guard, whose U.S.-trained successors can still be seen in countries like Honduras or Haiti.

Nicaragua's people, once illiterate and hopeless, are today full of hope, leaving poverty behind and building a common future of prosperity. All of these achievements result from the unbending loyalty of the FSLN led by Daniel Ortega to the visionary power of Fonseca, whom Tomas Borge likened to Che Guevara as one of Latin Amerca's revolutionary immortals.

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