14ymedio, Bertrand de la Grange, Madrid/November 8, 2014 — Prensa Latina devoted only ten lines to news that stunned the world. Below a detached title – “The GDR Announces the Opening of its Borders” – the Cuban agency related on November 9, 1989, that the German Democratic Republic had just made an administrative “ruling” by which “citizens will be able to take private trips without the need to explain their reasons.” The word “wall” did not appear in the teletype. Such moderation reflected the prevailing confusion in Havana.
The transcendental event that western media celebrated was a catastrophe for the allies of the Soviet Union in the Americas. Cuba and Sandinista Nicaragua were in mourning. The guerillas still active in the region, above all the Salvadoran FMLN, the Guatemalan URNG, and to a lesser extent the Colombian FARC, saw their logistical and diplomatic space reduced with the weakening of the communist bloc.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s trip to Cuba, some months before, had made evident the gulf that separated the Soviet president from the then Maximum Leader who held tight to ideological orthodoxy as a detractor of the Perestroika economic reforms, which were seen by Havana as an imitation of capitalism. “We have seen sad things in other socialist countries, very sad things,” Fidel Castro would later say in reference to the changes that took place two years after the collapse of the USSR, with its devastating consequences for the Cuban economy, totally dependent on subsidies from Moscow.
The events of November 9 also alarmed the Sandinista leaders in Nicaragua. They did not expect it, in spite of – or perhaps because of – their close relationship with the Stasi, the intelligence apparatus of the GDR, which along with Cubans managed the security of the nine leaders of the revolution. A year before, the Stasi had played a key role in Operation Berta in order to change by force of arms the Nicaraguan currency in a desperate effort to stop an inflation of 36,000%, which the government managed to reduce to 2,000% in 1989.
When the news arrived from Berlin, Nicaragua was immersed in a very tense electoral campaign. At the request of the White House, Gorbachev had convinced the Sandinista government to advance the elections scheduled for the end of the year to February 25, 1990. This was about looking for a political exit to the war between the Sandinista forces, supported by Havana, and an essentially peasant rebellion, the Contras, sustained by Washington. Managua was then an important piece on the regional geo-political board, and the US feared that El Salvador would be the next chip to fall.
The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) hoped to achieve with those elections democratic legitimacy to convince the international community of the need to disarm the Contras under the supervision of the United Nations. Opposing, the National Opposition Union (UNO) a coalition of 14 parties from the whole political spectrum, seemed to have not the least chance of winning. Its candidate, Violeta Barrios, widow of Joaquin Chamorro, assassinated during the Somoza dictatorship, was a housewife without political experience. Instead, the FSLN counted on the overwhelming machinery of the State to impose its candidate, Daniel Ortega, who had spent a decade in power.
La Prensa, property of the Chamorro family, dedicated extensive coverage to the Berlin event, including an editorial entitled, “Fall of the Wall, a Miracle of History.” Antonio Lacayo, son-in-law and close adviser to the UNO candidate, saw the opportunity that was presented to them. “We knew immediately that that historic event would have very favorable repercussions for us in the campaign against the Sandinistas,” he says in a book, The Difficult Nicaraguan Transition, published in 2005. “We said that if the Germans were capable of throwing off forty years of dictatorship, we could throw off ours of ten years…”
He was not wrong. Contrary to the surveys, the international press and the diplomats, who predicted a comfortable victory for Daniel Ortega, Violeta de Chamorro won with almost 55% of the vote.
“The electoral defeat of the Sandinistas was our Berlin Wall, we were convinced we were going to win,” Joaquin Villalobos would later say. Villalobos was one of the leaders of the Salvadoran guerrilla group, the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation, which had its rearguard in Managua. Instead, the events of November 1989 in Germany did not affect them “morally,” and they decided to continue with their plans to launch an unprecedented military offensive against the capital, San Salvador, and the country’s principal cities.
The political times of Central America did not match up with those of Eastern Europe. The Salvadoran guerrillas saw their survival endangered in the face of pressures from the United States on Gorbachev to stop the deliveries of Soviet arms through Cuba and Nicaragua. The FMLN dreamed of winning power by means of weapons, although their more realistic commanders settled for achieving a greater control of terrain in preparation for a negotiation.
While the Cold War was dying out and the citizens of East Germany were celebrating their new freedom, the leaders of the FMLN hurried the final details of “Operation To the Top” in safe houses placed at their disposal by the Sandinista government. November 11, a little before eight at night, Radio Venceremos, the emissary of the Salvadoran guerrillas, received the message from Joaquin Villalobos: “We are on the march. From here to there, there is no retreat,” he said from Managua. The offensive was beginning.
The Soviets were furious at feeling tricked by their Sandinista allies who had committed to cutting off logistical help to the FMLN. The minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze, one of Gorbachev’s closest associates, had traveled to Nicaragua the month before to announce Moscow’s decision to collaborate with the peace plan for Central America, launched two years before with international support.
Close to 4,000 Salvadorans died in the two weeks of combat, between guerrilla fighters, soldiers and the civil population. Was anything achieved? According to writer David Escobar Galindo, ex-negotiator for the government, “The offensive of November 11, 1989, opened the possibility for peace by demonstrating that war could not be decided militarily.” Terror had reached an equilibrium. Both sides would sign the peace in 1992 and, a distant consequence of the fall of the Wall, the FMLN would come to power by the ballot box in 2009.
Editor’s note: This text has been previously published in the daily El Pais. We reproduce it with permission of the author.
Bertrand de la Grange was a correspondent for Le Monde in Central America when the Wall fell.
Translated by MLK