The Revolution Museum, León Nicaragua
León is now a bustling town in northern Nicaragua, popular with tourists for its cobbled streets and pretty colonial architecture, but in 1978 it was the site of a long struggle that ended in a bloody two-year civil war between the left-wing Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional or FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) and the Somoza family dynasty.
The Somoza family ruled Nicaragua as its personal fiefdom. They owned most of the farming land and the industry, and all political dissent was suppressed. In the early 1970s, the FSLN launched its first armed attacks on the regime. In 1975, Somoza imposed a state of siege. He censored the press, and threatened all opponents with jail and torture. Somoza’s National Guard also increased its violence against individuals - and entire communities - that they suspected were sympathetic to the Sandinistas (FSLN). In 1976 many of the FSLN guerrillas were killed, including its leader and founder Carlos Fonseca, in a siege.
Slowly but surely, the Sandinistas gathered their forces for a renewed attack on the government. They recruited guerrilla fighters in the universities, they robbed banks, and at a grass roots level they created a strong support base amongst rural peasants and indigenous communities. In January 1978 the editor of the opposition newspaper, who had opposed violence against the regime, was assassinated. Spontaneous riots erupted in the cities, and there was a general strike. Mass risings took place in Matagalpa, León and Esteli in September 1978, with large numbers of semi-armed civilians joining the revolt. They were defeated by the National Guard. The September Insurrection, as it was called, was followed by massive ‘Clean-Up’ operations by Somoza’s troops which left 6,000 Sandinista supporters dead.
By 1979 the United States no longer supported the Somoza regime; they tried to negotiated with Somoza but he refused to leave. Several thousand FSLN fighters moved in from the war fronts, better armed than before. In the cities, the mass movement was also preparing for a final attack. On June 4th, the Sandinistas issued a call for a general strike. The next day, everything stopped; and the cities prepared for the final confrontation with the National Guard. The young, the very young, the old…. all were involved. Armed with contact bombs and homemade weapons they fought back against the National Guard, and won. July 17 is celebrated in Nicaragua today as the ‘Day of Joy’. Somoza fled the country, and the bloody two-year civil war was finally over… for now.
It is here in León, housed in the shabby municipal palace on the main plaza, that you can find the Museo de la Revolucion (Revolution Museum). The museum provides a sobering glimpse of what life was like for the people of Nicaragua during this tumultuous time in Nicaragua’s history. It focuses on the events of 1978-79 and the part that León’s FSLN guerilla fighters and civilians played in the civil war.