The Americas 59.1 (2002) 142-144
[Access article in PDF]
This fine biography of Carlos Fonseca Amador, founder of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), recreates the origins of a revolutionary organization whose project has been defeated, whose reputation has been tarnished, and whose Utopia has dissolved into the prosaic local administration of global capitalism that seems the only post-Cold War possibility for the Latin American nation-state. In his recent memoir, Sergio Ramírez, once vice president of revolutionary Nicaragua, declares that intellectuals have done the revolution a grave historical injustice by so quickly forgetting about Sandinista Nicaragua. Matilde Zimmermann's book proves his point, showing that a fresh analysis of the Nicaraguan experience can illuminate questions central to the emerging social history of the Latin American Left in the second half of the twentieth century. In the process, she tells a life story that is, like the larger story of the revolutionary Left itself, as compelling and admirable as it is melancholy and pathetic.
Along with published materials, Zimmermann bases her biography on the Fonseca dossier at the Nicaraguan military archives, much of it built up over twenty years by Somocista military intelligence, and she shades in the portrait using interviews with Fonseca's family, friends, and fellow revolutionists. Even so, Fonseca remains rather elusive, in large part because he spent virtually his entire adult life in hiding or in exile, devoting himself to intense study, endless political debate, and micro-management of operational detail. Rather than produce a volume that would have been as slim as Fonseca himself, Zimmermann quite legitimately turns the story of Fonseca into the story of the FSLN as an organization, legitimately because during Fonseca's lifetime it rarely numbered more than a hundred militants, and its condition could always be diagnosed in terms of the state of Fonseca himself.
Besides founding it, Fonseca made two major contributions to the Sandinista Front. Best known is his tireless retrieval of information about Augusto Sandino, which he then wove into FSLN literature and doctrine. This proved vitally important for two reasons. It gave the FSLN cadre the romantic nationalist and pan-Latin Americanist idiom of Sandino which, along with the myth of Ché-Cuba-Fidel, infused their generic Marxist-Leninism with historical depth and legendary power. Perhaps most importantly for the FSLN's fortunes in the eventful years after Fonseca's death, his relentless raising of Sandino's ghost insured that "Sandino", whether word or image, was essentially "copyright FSLN" by the time the insurrectionary masses needed an instant symbolism of resistance in 1978-79. No would-be vanguard party riding a series of spontaneous social rebellions could have asked for a better way of registering their authority over events.
Fonseca's second great contribution, brought out very effectively by Zimmermann, was the ascetic intensity that was so alluring to young militants, and seemed sufficient to maintain the unity of the organization during long periods of underground existence [End Page 142] and near total political irrelevance. Indeed, Zimmermann's study shows that the first organic association the FSLN had with a successful popular mobilization was the solidarity movement that grew up in the late 1960s to demand that the dictatorship respect the rights of jailed FSLN activists (including Fonseca) who had been arrested for largely adventurist guerrilla acts that had no ties to any popular struggle. Besides these, Fonseca's revolutionary achievements are hard to measure, precisely because he spent so much of his life rendered relatively ineffective by a notoriety that constrained his movements and left him rather stranded in Cuba.
Zimmermann recreates a vivid picture of the awful final days of Fonseca. In 1975 he returned to Nicaragua to mend the rift between the FSLN's three factions, and to re-validate his leadership. He entered the jungle in March 1976. His eyesight so deteriorated that he was essentially blind; his tactical judgment was so dubious that...