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Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Struggle for Liberation

Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Struggle for Liberation

by Kenneth E. Morris

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Together with his brother Humberto, Daniel Ortega Saavedra masterminded the only victorious Latin American revolution since Fidel Castro’s in Cuba. Following the triumphant 1979 Nicaraguan revolution, Ortega was named coordinator of the governing junta, and then in 1984 was elected president by a landslide in the country’s first free presidential


Together with his brother Humberto, Daniel Ortega Saavedra masterminded the only victorious Latin American revolution since Fidel Castro’s in Cuba. Following the triumphant 1979 Nicaraguan revolution, Ortega was named coordinator of the governing junta, and then in 1984 was elected president by a landslide in the country’s first free presidential election. The future was full of promise.

Yet the United States was soon training, equipping, and financing a counterrevolutionary force inside Nicaragua while sabotaging its crippled economy. The result was a decade-long civil war. By 1990, Nicaraguans dutifully voted Ortega out and the preferred candidate of the United States in. And Nicaraguans grew poorer and sicker.

Then, in 2006, Daniel Ortega was reelected president. He was still defiantly left-wing and deeply committed to reclaiming the lost promise of the Revolution. Only time will tell if he succeeds, but he has positioned himself as an ally of Castro and Hugo Chávez, while life for many Nicaraguans is finally improving.

Unfinished Revolution is the first full-length biography of Daniel Ortega in any language. Drawing from a wealth of untapped sources, it tells the story of Nicaragua’s continuing struggle for liberation through the prism of the Revolution’s most emblematic yet enigmatic hero.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ortega has been called many things – revolutionary, political leader, even child molester – but poet? According to Ortega, "In Nicaragua everybody is considered a poet until he proves to the contrary," and Morris's inclusion of the leader's poems go a long ways toward recasting the man that George W. Bush called "an animal at a garden party." Yet Morris also reminds us of Ortega the killer, chronicling his crimes and prison life, where he acquired traits for clandestine action and matured as a revolutionary strategist. Freed in 1976, Ortega soon led a bloody but successful revolution, overthrowing the government and bringing the Sandinistas to power, but ultimately finding the state "remote, inefficient, and a little clueless" and out of money. "McDonald's customers were asked to return their paper cups to be washed and reused – if water supply was available." Ortega has spent a lifetime dedicated to improving the lives of Nicaragua's poor and remains, in Morris's view, innocent of the aggrandizement so prevalent in third world countries. But for all of Morris's accurate reporting, the book lacks enough color and depth to cast Ortega as a character – whether admirable or otherwise. (Aug.)
Kirkus Reviews
Critical biography of Nicaragua's president. Morris (Jimmy Carter: American Moralist, 1996, etc.) examines the life of Daniel Ortega Saavedra, who blended Catholicism with Marxism in combating the repressive regime of dictator Anastasio Somoza. Ortega joined the Sandinista group FSLN in 1963, and "from then on he was a committed revolutionary." In 1967, he "killed for the first time," assassinating a National Guard sergeant in an act that he likened to a member of the French Resistance killing a Gestapo agent. Morris doesn't quite buy the argument, but he appreciates the fact that Ortega was skilled at what he did, having learned in prison the best practices of guerrilla warfare and putting them to good use. Ortega rose in the ranks of the guerrilla army, writes the author, not just because of those skills but also because the movement's leader was killed in 1976, at a time when the Sandinista cause was becoming well known outside Nicaragua. The civil war that raged throughout the late 1970s killed thousands, while the hated National Guard inflicted hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of damage to the country's infrastructure when it became apparent that the FSLN would prevail. Ortega, a Marxist in power, instantly became a bete noire of the Reagan administration and a target of U.S.-funded counterrevolutionaries. He remains an outsider, held by American functionaries with much the same regard that Fidel Castro once was-and he's not universally popular in Nicaragua either. For his many faults, though, Ortega, by Morris's account, has improved the lives of ordinary Nicaraguans-"it is difficult to conclude that Nicaragua would be better off replacing him with a liberal opponent."A solid biography of a compelling but little-known leader from a country that, though small, has loomed large in recent history. Agent: Janet Rosen/Sheree Bykofsky and Associates

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Unfinished Revolution

Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Struggle for Liberation

By Kenneth Earl Morris

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2010 Kenneth E. Morris
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-756-6



Nicaragua, most of its population and many visitors believe, is the most beautiful country on earth. Volcanic mountains tower beside shimmering lakes before the landscape melts into jungle thickets in one direction and pristine seashores in the other. Exotic wildflowers sprout forth from the dense underbrush while plump water droplets glisten on fat banana leaves after the tropical rains. It lies between Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south. Its sunsets are especially spectacular. The sky will curl around a darkening land, hugging it in a blaze of colors, only slowly to fade into the encroaching nightfall. Then the glow from a hundred flickering lights comes slowly into view. These are not the stars, but the fires from the wood stoves on which many Nicaraguan families still cook — beans and rice, usually plantain, sometimes a little chicken or pork, often corn tortillas — and their faint lights punctuate the blackness.

Yet there is danger too. Almost every day nature issues a warning in the quiver of the earth, ever so slight, as the tectonic plates beneath the isthmus that links North and South America adjust their positions. About once a generation, at no predictable intervals, nature makes good on this daily warning. The land buckles with such ferocity that buildings fall to rubble in an instant, the dreams of yet another generation dashed as quickly. Meanwhile, for about half the year, when the rains come, torrents of water rush down village and city streets, temporarily turning them into raging rivers. Periodically nature unleashes its full aquatic fury by hurling hurricanes across the fragile land. The damages often total hundreds of millions of dollars, and death tolls can reach the thousands.

Nevertheless, nature is not the dominant force in Nicaragua, and has not been for nearly half a millennium. The fiercest destruction has always appeared in human form. The conquistadores who arrived in 1522 quickly reduced the native population from around a million to fewer than a hundred thousand. This 90-plus percent elimination of population was achieved in the usual ways — exposing some of the natives to European diseases, selling others into slavery, and slaughtering still more outright — and was far more catastrophic than any natural disaster. Indeed, nature is not to blame for the fact that many twenty-first-century Nicaraguans still cook on wood-fired stoves — or often go hungry. As Daniel Ortega insists, Nicaragua not only has the potential to feed itself but also to become the "breadbasket of Central America." It is not the land but human beings who are to blame for Nicaragua's failure to realize its agricultural potential. Nor is the landscape to blame for the fact that although not much more than two hundred miles separate Nicaragua's Pacific and Caribbean coasts, the trip from one to the other is still better taken by plane. Nicaragua's mountainous interior is rugged, but that hardly excuses the country's continuing failure to build decent roads. And the absence of decent roads is one reason agriculture production lags. If farmers cannot get their crops to market before they spoil, they understandably do not bother to raise them in the first place.

Moreover, although there have been relatively tranquil interludes, the story of Nicaragua more often than not is a story of dominant foreign powers, usually allied with local elites, oppressing the population into subservience and savaging those who resist. Nicaragua's recent revolutionaries and present-day leaders were born into a world soaked in the blood of the violent past. This past shaped what their outlooks would be even before they were born, and understanding it is the first step in understanding the continuing struggle of Nicaraguans for the liberation of their bewitching land.

The Impress of the Past

The first mistake many foreigners make about Nicaragua is to minimize the mark that Spanish domination left on the country. It was exactly three hundred years after the Spanish conquistador Gil González commanded the first expedition into Nicaragua in 1522 that Nicaragua finally gained independence from Spain. Nicaragua's more proximate history involves its domination by the United States, but the Spanish were fiercer and more brutal than their successors. Except for pockets along Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, separated by geography and British rule from the more populous and politically dominant Pacific coast, Nicaragua bears the marks of its Spanish legacy much more deeply than those of its more recent associations with other countries. It is a Spanish-speaking, predominately Roman Catholic country in which the bulk of the 5.5 million inhabitants are of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry.

Historical legacies are primarily relevant to the present only to the extent and manner that people remember them. It is with this in mind that a tale, often told by Nicaraguan men standing on street corners, about the founding of their country is worth repeating. As the story goes, when the Spanish conquistadores arrived they had spent three long months at sea in the company of only other men. Accordingly, as soon as they set foot on land they had one goal in their minds: sex. The easy acquisition of this goal, however, was thwarted by the presence of native men. The conquistadores handled this complication by killing or enslaving whatever native men they came across, and then raping the women.

This street-corner story stands in sharp contrast to the founding myth in the United States, namely the Thanksgiving story, according to which the United States was founded by God-fearing pilgrim families searching for religious freedom in a new world. Their tale is one of progress premised upon hard work, strong values, and social cooperation. As the Thanksgiving story has it, the pilgrims and the natives even sat down together as brothers and sisters, each sharing what they had, to enjoy the bountiful harvest feast that God had provided. The Thanksgiving story is no more accurate than the street-corner tale told by the Nicaraguan men. The mythical meanings of the two stories, however, are diametrically opposed. The American myth tells of a bountiful land where success lies within reach of anyone of strong character who is willing to work in harmony with others to achieve their common dreams. The American myth also places couple-centered families at center stage. The Nicaraguan myth has none of these components. The new world does not provide bounty enough for everyone, and in fact there is not enough to go around. The strong must take what they want from the weak. Moreover, this is why the strong arrived in the new world in the first place — not to create a God-fearing community but to plunder the land for profits. (The conquistadores were after gold, and they got a lot of it.) Nor did they arrive as families, but rather as single men who raped and murdered and enslaved. Superior moral values do not prevail in this Nicaraguan story, but rather raw power.

It goes without saying that Nicaragua celebrates no Thanksgiving holiday. For Nicaraguans recalling their founding, life is a zero-sum affair. A person is either a conqueror or among the conquered. And none of this is to say that Nicaraguans feel imprisoned by a myth of their founding any more than adults in the United States take the Thanksgiving story as historical fact. Nicaraguans can and do see life as other than zero-sum, and in particular as allowing for all parties to gain. They also understand the importance of hard work, strong values, nuclear families, and social cooperation. Even so, myths of foundings — like the foundings themselves — can have subliminal influences over the way people feel and act in the present. If you listen, for example, you will notice that Nicaraguans use the verb "to conquer" (conquistar) in everyday speech with greater frequency than it is normally used in English. In fact, it would appear that a Nicaraguan will sometimes use "to conquer" where an American would use "to succeed" (a verb that has no Spanish cognate). It is only a matter of connotations, but it is as if to this day, for Nicaraguans, "succeeding" involves "conquering."

Nicaraguans may see the world as divided between the conquered and the conquerors, but the Spaniards also provided them with an alternative to each extreme of this awful dialectic: the romantic figure of Don Quixote. Most literate Nicaraguans know this story as well as most people in the United States know Huckleberry Finn. Don Quixote tells us that winning or losing — conquering or being conquered — is not necessarily life's most important outcome. More important sometimes are the integrity of people's dreams and the nobility of the vision that animates their quests. Reality has no hold on Don Quixote, and his defiance of it, coupled with his insistence on superimposing a glorious frame onto it, comprises his inspiration. Many Nicaraguans are at least a little like Don Quixote in their elevation of passion and romance over practicality and reason.

The quixotic impulse was eventually institutionalized in Nicaragua. Romantic resistance fighters — or guerrillas — to this day camp out in clusters of a dozen or so like-minded comrades and dream of overthrowing whatever regime happens to be in place, though rarely do they have a clear idea of how their revolution will succeed or what they would do if it did. And the national sense of humor perpetually finds amusement in one's own and others' foibles — provided the foibles are the inversions of noble intentions. A T-shirt recently for sale in Managua's central shopping mall links these two forms of the quixotic impulse by depicting two armadillos, one labeled "ordinary" (común) and the other "Nicaraguan" (Nicaragüense). The difference is that the Nicaraguan armadillo is wrapped in ammunition belts full of grenades, and carries a rifle and a pistol.

The institutionalization of the quixotic impulse eventually took a literary form as Nicaraguan culture became infatuated with poetry. The catalyst was the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío (1867–1916); since Darío, many literate Nicaraguans have tried a hand at poetry, and not a few have followed Darío in achieving world reputations for their art. As Daniel Ortega, a sometime poet himself, once quipped, "In Nicaragua, everybody is considered to be a poet until he proves to the contrary." Through poetry, as through humor, Nicaraguans have found a means of imaginary escape from the awful alternative of conquering or being conquered — or becoming real guerrilla fighters. As such, poetry is their sublimated satisfaction, and it is so popular that when one filmmaker set out to make a movie about Nicaragua, he appropriately entitled it "Land of the Poets." Yet the filmmaker may have become more deeply immersed in Nicaraguan realities than he expected to be — in quixotic Nicaraguan fashion, he never actually got around to making the film.

Too much cannot be made of these kinds of subtler legacies, which continue to permeate the culture. To this day, the conqueror versus conquered dialectic is very much in evidence, and revolutionary movements tend especially to attract a lot of quixotic types. Meanwhile, other aspects of Nicaragua's Spanish heritage surface, such as the time Ortega tried to explain his political philosophy to an uncomprehending interviewer from the United States in terms of its anchorage in Spanish-Catholic traditions. It was always easier for Americans to label him a Marxist, which he never really was, than to understand his Spanish-Catholic views. But not everyone draws the same things to the same degrees from their traditions. Ortega does tend to see the world in terms of conquerors versus the conquered (and frankly seems especially to see gender relations in this framework), but he is not very quixotic in disposition. Instead, he is incredibly practical in his objectives and methodical in pursuit of them. Of course, he embodies his cultural traditions in other ways. He believes that he has some powers of ESP, for example, and has written poetry. He chooses the parts of his cultural heritage that suit him, rejects other parts, and is molded by the whole of it more than even he is aware.

Had independence from Spain brought true national sovereignty to Nicaragua, much of the Spanish legacy in the country might have evolved differently. As it was, the break from Spain really only provided Nicaragua with another dominating foreign power. As a result, independence reinforced rather than relaxed Nicaragua's self-conception as a conquered people. Nicaragua was a small, poor country, too weak to defend itself either militarily or economically against its aggressors, and was allied with other countries that were not much stronger. Though linked briefly with the Mexican Empire (which might have served it better in the long run), Nicaragua soon switched its loyalty to the fragile Central American Federation, which included Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The federation proved advantageous to Nicaragua almost a quarter of a century later, when member countries lent military assistance to repel a would-be conqueror, but it was rarely that strongly united. It frequently fragmented into impotency, a political failure that has left historians to wonder why a strong Central American federation is so elusive a goal, especially when the United Fruit Company managed to unite several countries into banana republics. In any event, the federation rarely provided Nicaragua with reliable political protection and was of no assistance in deflecting the interest that the United States soon took in the country. Having introduced the Monroe Doctrine in the year following Nicaragua's independence, the United States essentially claimed hegemony over all of Latin America. (The Monroe Doctrine, directed against Europe's further intervention in the Western Hemisphere, implied that the United States could then do as it wished in Latin America.) It took a specific interest in Nicaragua, especially for the right to build a trans-isthmus canal through the country.

Obviously Panama was eventually chosen as the site for the canal. (Panama was part of Colombia at that time. The United States backed separatist groups in Panama to help it break away from Colombia in exchange for the right to build a canal there.) But Nicaragua was originally the preferred and probably superior site. Nicaragua boasts one of the largest lakes in the hemisphere, Lake Colcibolca (Lake Nicaragua), and using this ready-made body of water in canal construction would have been easier from an engineering standpoint than building the canal through Panama. In fact, it appears that the main reason Panama was chosen over Nicaragua was that a savvy French lobbyist, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, misled Congress into believing that a canal through Nicaragua would be vulnerable to volcanic eruptions. Bunau-Varilla was working on behalf of French investors who had forty million dollars to gain from a canal through Panama. Money and political cunning therefore determined the site of the canal, not engineering ease. Nevertheless, after the Panama Canal was built, the United States retained an interest in Nicaragua, because it contemplated constructing a second canal. Even today, talk of a second canal through Nicaragua can be heard, with Russia a recently interested sponsor.

There was a pressing need for a canal through Central America. Until 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed, overland travel across the United States was arduous. Depending upon the points of origin and destination, the journey could take months, and it was fraught with so many difficulties that death en route was a distinct possibility. The alternative, traveling by sea, required going all the way around the tip of South America. The incentive to construct a canal through Central America was therefore enormous, and it increased dramatically during the 1840s, when gold was discovered in California. With the gold rush, Americans had a new reason to want to cross the continent and to ship their gold back east. Accordingly, because Britain retained influence on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast (and the Monroe Doctrine allowed that existing European colonies could remain in place), the United States sat down with Britain to negotiate what became the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, signed in 1850. According to the terms of the treaty, the United States and Britain would share rights to a future canal through Nicaragua. The only country that came away from the negotiations without any rights was Nicaragua.

There followed one of the most bizarre events in all of Central American history. A filibuster from the United States named William Walker took it upon himself to conquer Nicaragua. Walker's motives were mixed, but they included both avarice and hubris. To some extent, Walker and his band of mercenaries were simply putting a business scheme in motion. Nicaragua was contested territory for the moguls of the era, and as the prospect of the canal loomed, Walker wanted to claim the country in order to profit from it. The political situation in Nicaragua at the time made Walker's scheme viable. The country was divided into two opposing political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Liberals were largely supported by the United States while the Conservatives were backed by Britain. The tensions between the two factions were sufficiently grave to enable Walker to negotiate an agreement with the Liberals to lend them armed support in exchange for his election to the presidency in 1856. Beyond personal ambition, Walker had self-styled patriotic motives. A Southerner who believed in manifest destiny, Walker thought that Central America would ultimately be incorporated into the United States, and he wanted any new state to be a slave one. Accordingly, as president he legalized slavery and decreed that English would be the official language of Nicaragua. Thus in one fell swoop the country turned into an English-speaking, slave-owning state of the United States under a conquering dictator.


Excerpted from Unfinished Revolution by Kenneth Earl Morris. Copyright © 2010 Kenneth E. Morris. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Kenneth E. Morris is the author of two previous political biographies: Jimmy Carter, American Moralist and Bonhoeffer’s Ethic of Discipleship. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities.

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