On July 19, 1979, a multiclass coalition led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, [FSLN], or Sandinistas) overthrew the 43-year Somoza dictatorship, inaugurating the period of the Nicaraguan (or Sandinista) revolution. Nicaragua, under the FSLN, is considered the last major battleground of the cold war in the Western Hemisphere. In the early 1980s the revolutionary regime embarked on a series of successful programs in health care, literacy, and related arenas and enjoyed wide spread support. By the mid1980s the regime and revolutionary process began to weaken, largely the result of a crippling U.S. trade embargo and the U.S.-supported contra war under U.S. President Ronald Reagan. On February 25, 1990, a coalition of anti-Sandinista political parties defeated the ruling regime at the polls, effectively ending the 11-year revolutionary experiment.
The origins of the revolution lie in decades of politically exclusionary dictatorship under the three Somozas; the long history of U.S. military, economic, and political intervention in Nicaraguan affairs; the crushing poverty suffered by the majority of the country’s citizens; and the political and military organizing efforts of the FSLN. Named after Augusto C. Sandino, the nationalist rebel who fought the U.S. Marines to a stalemate from 1927 to 1932, the FSLN was founded in 1961 by Carlos Fonseca Amador, Tomás Borge, and other Nicaraguans inspired by the example of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. After nearly two decades of organizing and struggle, and the death of Fonseca in 1976, by the late 1970s the Sandinistas had garnered the support of the majority of western Nicaragua’s urban poor and a substantial segment of its business and landowning class. Their political program emphasized opposition to the Somoza dictatorship (Somocismo) and U.S. imperialism; nationalism, democracy, and social justice at home; and political nonalignment abroad. In 1979 a divided elite, the intransigence and corruption of the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and a relatively benign U.S. administration under President Jimmy Carter combined to create a strategic political opening, which the FSLN exploited to defeat Somoza’s National Guard (Guardia Nacional) and seize state power. An estimated 50,000 Nicaraguans died in the uprisings and insurrections against the Somoza regime, around 1.7 percent of the country’s population of 3 million. The economy was devastated, with GDP declining 7.2 percent in 1978 and 25.9 percent in 1979, and the country saddled with $1.6 billion in foreign debt and severe shortages of food, medicine, and other basic commodities.
After ousting Somoza, the Sandinistas embarked on a far-reaching program of social and economic reform. The preexisting national government was abolished, replaced by the Governing Junta of National Recon- struction (JGRN, or Junta), established in Costa Rica in early 1979 and the country’s supreme politi- cal authority. From 1979 to 1984 de facto political power was wielded by the FSLN’s nine-member Joint National Directorate (DN), whose policy prescriptions guided the JGRN.
The Fundamental Statute of the Republic of Nicaragua, decreed by the JGRN in August 1979, abolished the previous constitution and established three branches of government: executive (the JGRN, comprised of five members); legislative (the Council of State, inaugurated in May 1980 and composed at that time of 47 members); and judicial (the Courts of Justice). After national elections in November 1984, the National Assembly replaced the Council of State, and the JGRN was dissolved, replaced by elected president Daniel Ortega. In January 1987 a new constitution was promulgated codifying these and other changes.
Promoting democracy from below, the revolutionary regime found much of its legitimacy in the many popular organizations (organizaciones populares) that helped bring the Sandinistas to power, and which continued to play a key role in the revolution after 1979. Chief among these were the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDSs, or neighborhood committees); the Sandinista Workers Federation (CST), the Rural Workers
Association (ATC), the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), and the Luisa Amada Espinosa Nicaraguan Women’s Association (AMNLAE).
Incorporating gender equality into its platform, the FSLN focused considerable attention on women’s issues, including maternal health, child care, political equality, and others, though critics later charged that the party largely reproduced the patriarchal norms of the larger society.
The new government also abolished the National Guard and police forces, and in their stead created the Popular Sandinista Army (Ejército Popular Sandinista, or EPS), under the direction of the Ministry of Defense; and the Sandinista Police and State Security Forces, under the Ministry of Interior. One of the major tasks of the new regime was to launch extensive land reforms through its Ministry of Agricultural Development and Agrarian Reform (MIDINRA), headed by DN member Jaime Wheelock. Sandinista agrarian reform efforts in the 1980s, like those of Cuba in the 1960s, have been the topic of enormous controversy. On seizing power, the government expropriated all land owned by Somoza and his allies, a total of some 800,000 hectares, or 20 percent of the country’s arable land. Most was given over to various types of state-run cooperatives. Criticized for favoring these state-run farms over privately owned peasant farms through differential loan and credit policies, MIDINRA’s post-expropriation policies were among the chief reasons cited by opponents of the regime for the growth of counter revolutionary (contra) forces within the country beginning in the early 1980s.
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL POLICIES
In the realm of popular welfare, the revolutionary gov- ernment embarked on a wide range of reforms. These included a more extensive social security system; large state subsidies for housing and staple foods; the creation of a national health care system; a major expansion of public schooling; and a Literacy Crusade that earned the UNESCO Literacy Prize in 1980. In the cultural arena, the Ministry of Culture promoted a host of revo- lutionary cultural products and forms including music, theater, dance, and visual arts, in part through the San- dinista Association of Cultural Workers (ASTC).
A major issue through the 1980s was the relationship between the Sandinista regime and the ethnic minorities of the Atlantic coast region, which had a very different history and culture from mestizo-dominated, Spanish-speaking western Nicaragua. Despite the FSLN’s efforts to grant the Atlantic coast population substantial political and cultural autonomy, from the early 1980s opposition to the regime mounted among the region’s indigenous (Miskitu, Sumu, and Rama Amerindians), Garifuna (Afro-Amerindian), and English-speaking Afro-Caribbean (or Creole) population—minorities that together comprised around 35 percent of the coastal (costeño) population of some 270,000.
Another major issue concerned the revolution’s relationship to the Roman Catholic Church. Critics of the regime emphasized the disrespect shown to Pope John Paul II in his visit to Managua in March 1983, which they argued was emblematic of the FSLN’s antiCatholicism, while the regime’s supporters stressed the influence of liberation theology on Sandinista efforts to promote equal rights and social justice.
On November 4, 1984, the Sandinistas held national elections—to be held every six years—in which they garnered 67 percent of the vote and won 61 of 96 seats in the newly created National Assembly. The elections were denounced as fraudulent by the United States but judged as fair by international observers from Europe and the Americas, including the Latin American Studies Association.
Internationally, the Sandinista government pursued a policy of nonalignment, garnering the support of the Nonaligned Movement, and forging alliances with and receiving foreign assistance from western Europe (including France, West Germany, Spain, Italy, The Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark), as well as Cuba, the East bloc, and the Soviet Union. The United States, under President Reagan, interpreted the regime as a Cuban and Soviet beachhead and bulwark of communism.
On April 1, 1981, the Reagan administration announced a cutoff of aid, thereafter successfully depriving the regime of credits and loans from the InterAmerican Development Bank and other U.S.-dominated transnational financial institutions. On December 1, 1981, Reagan issued a Presidential Finding authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency to “support and conduct paramilitary operations against . . . Nicaragua,” which included support for contra forces, composed principally of several thousand former members of Somoza’s National Guard exiled in Honduras. In February and March 1984 the United States mined the harbor at Puerto Corinto, western Nicaragua’s largest port, and in May 1985 Reagan announced a U.S. trade embargo against Nicaragua. These and related hostile acts galvanized a growing peace and justice movement, in solidarity with the revolution, in the United States, Europe, and Latin America.
END OF THE REVOLUTIONARY
ExPERIMENT By the late 1980s the regime was beleaguered by the combined effects of the trade embargo, the contra war, hyperinflation, and growing popular discon- tent in consequence of the devastation of the contra war, severe economic dislocations, and the policy of universal military conscription. Losing the February 1990 elections to Violeta Chamorro and the Nation- al Opposition Union (UNO), the regime peacefully ceded power, leaving the country with some $12 bil- lion in debt. After 1990 the legacy of the revolution continued to exercise a major influence on the coun- try’s social, political, and cultural life, while a retooled FSLN wielded considerable political power in a series of coalition governments. A substantially reconfigured Sandinista Party regained the presidency in 2006 with the election of Daniel Ortega.