As I watched the attack on the U.S. Capitol unfold on January 6, I got a phone call from my mother. “I can’t believe this could happen to the temple of democracy,” she told me. “The destructive mob, the pure hatred on display—these are things that only happen in authoritarian countries.” My mother knows something about coups and insurrection. In 1978 and ’79, she witnessed firsthand the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN) brutal uprising in Nicaragua, which killed scores of people and shattered the lives of countless others.
My mother was at work on August 22, 1978, when FSLN forces led by Edén Pastora (known as “Commander Zero”), stormed the National Palace while the legislature was in session. They seized the palace and took some two thousand hostages. They were released two days later after the Nicaraguan government paid $500,000 in ransom. A little less than a year later, on July 17, 1979, the government fell. President Anastasio Somoza Debayle went into exile, and the FSLN assumed total control over the Nicaraguan state.
For ordinary Nicaraguans, the consequences were immediate, dire, and long-lasting. Almost 200,000 people lost their homes. An additional 150,000 (my family included) fled abroad. The country’s economy was left in tatters. The FSLN revolution did not happen overnight, my mother reminded me. For nearly a decade before the Sandinistas attacked the National Palace, they had used violence against their political opponents. They extorted small-business owners for protection and propagated lies and misinformation about local and national elected officials, sometimes kidnapping and killing them and their families. The long-term effects are still evident. Mass poverty persists, as does corruption. President Daniel Ortega, himself a former Sandinista, commands a million-dollar fortune, amassed over decades of misrule.
In his inaugural address two weeks after the failed insurrection, President Joe Biden reminded Americans of their duty to “defend the truth and defeat the lies.” If the last few years are any indication, that will prove easier said than done. I grew up in Hialeah, Florida, a thoroughly conservative municipality in Miami-Dade County. Home mostly to Cuban immigrants and second-generation Cuban-Americans, Hialeah is a Trump stronghold. The former president won about 75 percent of the vote there in 2020. Many still refuse to accept his defeat.
The tally wasn’t surprising, at least not to me. I grew up hearing the same talking points echoed today by Fox News and conservative talk radio: “Democrats are socialists,” “the Middle East should be wiped from the earth,” “Black Americans are inherently criminal,” and “Republicans are the party of Jesus and God.” No lie was off limits—as long as it worked to discredit the Democrats’ stance on social justice.