Last month, Florida’s fervently anti-establishment governor, Ron DeSantis, signed House Bill 5, “Civic Education Curriculum,” requiring students in the Sunshine State to learn about the impact of communism. Introduced by Kosovo-born Florida State Representative Ardian Zika (R-Land O’ Lakes) along with 26 co-introducers, the bill amends the state high school curriculum, requiring social studies classes “which must include a comparative discussion of political ideologies, such as communism and totalitarianism, that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy essential to the founding principles of the United States.”
Today, I signed HB 5 alongside Ana Abaunza, who escaped socialist regimes. Her story spotlights the necessity of teaching our youth why we have and will continue to fight for freedom.
— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) June 22, 2021
At the news conference during the bill’s signing, DeSantis explained his reasoning:
We have a number of people in Florida, particularly southern Florida, who’ve escaped totalitarian regimes, who’ve escaped communist dictatorships to be able to come to America. We want all students to understand the difference; why would somebody flee across shark-infested waters, say leaving from Cuba to come to southern Florida. Why would somebody leave a place like Vietnam? Why would people leave these countries and risk their lives to be able to come here? It’s important students understand that.
As expected, the usual suspects scoffed and predictably invoked the tired-old tropes and refrains of “McCarthyism” and “the 1950s.” Yet recent events in the Hemisphere underscore the necessity of discussing the legacy of international communism in the classroom. Some Communist states both past and present—such as the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge—are infamously remembered for their brutality. Yet others are less well-known. The brutality, longevity, and lack of contemporary attention to the abuses of Nicaragua’s Sandinista governments—and communist dictatorships as a whole—illustrate the necessity of teaching about the impact of communism worldwide.
NARRATIVES AND TESTIMONIES: SANDINISTA NICARAGUA
One of the speakers present at Governor DeSantis’ June 22 press conference was Ana Margarita Abaunza, who was born in Nicaragua, only to escape to Florida after the Marxist-inspired Sandinistas took power. She described the government she fled from as a “Leninist-Marxist regime.” Abaunza recalled:
I was president of the school [student] government, and they were trying to brainwash us in thinking that they were bringing benefits and well-being to the people of Nicaragua … Right now, that country, Nicaragua, the one that I was born in, is even worse than the day that I left … I tell you that listening to my granddaughter talking to me about socialism not being that bad is the worst thing that can happen to me … and we have to show our young people what it really is.
A disinterested historical community might come to recognize incumbent leader Jose Daniel Ortega Saavedra as the dictator who got away with it all. Oppression of indigenous Nicaraguans so bad that Native American activists such as Russell Means opposed it? Check. Death squads unleashed upon citizens in the current decade? Check. Corruption and self-enrichment at the expense of a severely impoverished populace? Check. When headlines such as “Fifth presidential candidate detained in Nicaragua; 15 opposition leaders now detained in total” appear on CNN of all places, there’s clearly plenty of totalitarianism to go around in Nicaragua. Yet, in contrast with brutal despots like Augusto Pinochet of Chile, Jorge Rafael Videla of Argentina, and Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala, few have sought to seriously hold Ortega accountable for his egregious abuses of power.
Few have sought to seriously hold Ortega accountable for his egregious abuses of power.
While the media and international community focused on the actions of President Reagan and the disparate anti-Sandinista armed groups known popularly as “the Contras,” Ortega and the Sandinistas were frequently hailed as anti-imperialist heroes. The films “Under Fire” (1983) and “Latino” (1985) portrayed the Sandinista bid for power as a noble cause. Sandinista sympathizers known as “Sandalistas” traveled to the country in solidarity, one of whom was future New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. Decades after his days as a Sandalista, de Blasio finally offered a tepid repudiation of Ortega before becoming mayor of the Big Apple. In the following decades, the media essentially forgot about Nicaragua, and the world largely shrugged when Ortega found his way back to power.
THE PAST AND PRESENT ATROCITIES COMMITTED BY COMMUNIST DICTATORSHIPS
In a time far removed from the conflicts of the Cold War, more young Americans are identifying as communists than ever before. Considering this development, it isn’t hard to fathom the sheer disgust and aversion that those like Abaunza must feel when younger members of their family come home from school saying that Communism “isn’t that bad.”
The swift crackdown led by Cuba’s communist regime and the steadfast resolve of the protesters has drawn international attention and condemnation.
At a July 21, 2021 town hall event at the Cafe Versailles Restaurant in Miami, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida explained that the Cuban dictatorship is “the source of all evil in this Western Hemisphere.” Beginning July 11, 2021, a massive wave of protests have rocked Cuba, with demonstrators marching and holding signs featuring slogans such as “down with the dictatorship.” The swift crackdown led by Cuba’s communist regime and the steadfast resolve of the protesters has drawn international attention and condemnation.
In the six decades since Fidel Castro took power on January 1st, 1959, the regime has sought to export its form of communism to other countries in the region and beyond. Venezuela is frequently cited, having been under the control of Castro allies since 1999. The current government of Nicolas Maduro, and before him Hugo Chavez, has been guided by advisors from Castro’s regime. Castro’s right-hand man, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, sought to bring a revolution to Bolivia before he was killed there in 1967. The 1970s saw Castro’s Cuba expanding its global “revolutionary” outreach to countries in Africa, supporting regimes in Angola and Ethiopia. Much of this history remains obscure to even college students with a concentration on Latin America. Comparatively, the human rights violations of anti-communist dictatorships—like that of 1976-83 Argentina—receive far more attention.
I myself hold a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University and studied Global Studies as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary. As an undergraduate, many of the classes about Latin American history and cultural studies focused on atrocities committed by anti-communist dictatorships in the region while spending a trivial amount of time on left-wing dictatorships like Castro’s Cuba and Ortega’s Nicaragua. For instance, a history course on state violence in Latin America centered on Pinochet’s Chile, the Argentina of the National Reorganization Process (including Videla), and the military dictatorship of Guatemala (including Rios Montt, who specifically targeted indigenous Guatemalans between 1982 and 1983). While a different class exploring Nicaragua also mentioned Sandinista abuses in passing, the segment devoted the most time to two anti-anti-communist movies about Nicaragua, Walker (1987) and Ballad of the Little Soldier. The latter is a 1984 documentary about indigenous Miskito child soldiers affiliated with an anti-Sandinista Contra rebel group. In a class discussion session, my professor briefly explained to the class some of the context that was missing from the film, touching on the fact that the Sandinistas also used child soldiers in that conflict.
In the half-century since the establishment of the Castro regime, why haven’t the past and present atrocities committed by communist dictatorship become common knowledge?
The forced disappearances of Argentines during the late 1970s and early 1980s were explored in the film “The Official Story” (“La historia oficial”),1985, with human rights defenders holding up photos of those who were disappeared by the Argentine regime. This Oscar-winning film received accolades and a wide audience, and is cited as a production commonly shown in courses on Latin American culture. The impact of this film is so pervasive that it was shown in my high school Spanish class. During the recent town hall in support of Cuban protestors, an individual in the background also held up a sign that evoked the imagery of the 1985 film, this time with photos of those who have been disappeared by the Cuban communist government at the event. In the half-century since the establishment of the Castro regime, why haven’t the past and present atrocities committed by the communist dictatorship become common knowledge?
DeSantis and Abaunza clearly understand that those who fail to learn from the mistakes of history are often consigned to repeat them. Unearthing the misdeeds of Ortega and other leftist despots may be a painstaking undertaking, but someone’s got to do it.
This article is part of a Human Events Opinion Special Collection, “RESURGENT COMMUNISM.” You can read the other pieces in the collection here.