What happens after a revolution, when those who ceded power don’t want to admit it’s gone? What right do nations have to preemptively attack the governments of other nations?
Managua after the earthquake, 1972
On December 23, 1972, a powerful earthquake leveled the capital city, Managua. The earthquake killed 10,000 of the city’s 400,000 residents and left another 50,000 homeless. About 80% of Managua’s commercial buildings were destroyed. President Anastasio Somoza Debayle‘s National Guard embezzled much of the international aid that flowed into the country to assist in reconstruction,and several parts of downtown Managua were never rebuilt. The president gave reconstruction contracts preferentially to family and friends, thereby profiting from the quake and increasing his control of the city’s economy. By some estimates, his personal wealth rose to US$400 million in 1974.
Rise of the Resistance
In 1975, Somoza imposed a state of siege, censoring the press, and threatening all opponents with internment and torture. Somoza’s National Guard also increased its violence against individuals and communities suspected of collaborating with the Sandinistas. Many of the FSLN guerrillas were killed, including its leader and founder Carlos Fonseca in 1976. Fonseca had returned to Nicaragua in 1975 from his exile in Cuba to try to reunite fractures that existed in the FSLN. He and his group were betrayed by a peasant who informed the National Guard that they were in the area. The guerrilla group was ambushed, and Fonseca was wounded in the process. The next morning Fonseca was executed by the National Guard.
Sandinista Insurrection (1978)
On January 10, 1978, Pedro JoaquínChamorro, the editor of the opposition newspaper LaPrensa and leader of the “Democratic Union of Liberation” (Unión Democráticade Liberación – UDEL), was assassinated. Although his assassins were not identified at the time, evidence implicated President Somoza’s son and other members of the National Guard. Spontaneous riots followed in several cities, while the business community organized a general strike demanding Somoza’s resignation.
Sandinistas carried out attacks in early February in several Nicaraguan cities. The National Guard responded by further increasing repression and using force to contain and intimidate all government opposition. The nationwide strike that paralyzed the country for ten days weakened the private enterprises and most of them decided to suspend their participation in less than two weeks. Meanwhile, Somoza asserted his intention to stay in power until the end of his presidential term in 1981. The United States government showed its displeasure with Somoza by suspending all military assistance to the regime, but continued to approve economic assistance to the country for humanitarian reasons.
A few days later six Nicaraguan cities rose in revolt. Armed youths took over the highland city of Matagalpa. Sandinista cadres attacked Guard posts in Managua, Masaya, León, Chinandega and Estelí. Large numbers of semi-armed civilians joined the revolt and put the Guard garrisons of the latter four cities under siege. The September Insurrection of 1978 was subdued at the cost of several thousand, mostly civilian, casualties.
On July 19, the Sandinista army entered Managua, culminating the first goal of the Nicaraguan revolution. The war left approximately 30,000-50,000 dead and 150,000 Nicaraguans in exile. The five-member junta entered the Nicaraguan capital the next day and assumed power, reiterating its pledge to work for political pluralism, a mixed economic system, and a nonaligned foreign policy.
Sandinista rule (1979–90)
The new government, formed in 1979 and dominated by the Sandinistas, resulted in a socialist model of economic development. The new leadership was conscious of the social inequities produced during the previous thirty years of unrestricted economic growth and was determined to make the country’s workers and peasants, the “economically underprivileged”, the prime beneficiaries of the new society. Consequently, in 1980 and 1981, unbridled incentives to private investment gave way to institutions designed to redistribute wealth and income. Private property would continue to be allowed, but all land belonging to the Somozas was confiscated.
However, the ideology of the Sandinistas put the future of the private sector and of private ownership of the means of production in doubt. Although under the new government both public and private ownership were accepted, government spokespersons occasionally referred to a reconstruction phase in the country’s development, in which property owners and the professional class would be tapped for their managerial and technical expertise. After reconstruction and recovery, the private sector would give way to expanded public ownership in most areas of the economy. Despite such ideas, which represented the point of view of a faction of the government, the Sandinista government remained officially committed to a mixed economy.
Economic growth was uneven in the 1980s. Restructuring of the economy and the rebuilding immediately following the end of the civil war caused the GDP to rise about 5 percent in 1980 and 1981. Each year from 1984 to 1990, however, showed a drop in the GDP. Reasons for the contraction included the reluctance of foreign banks to offer new loans, the diversion of funds to fight the new insurrection against the government, and, after 1985, the total embargo on trade with the United States, formerly Nicaragua’s largest trading partner. After 1985 the government chose to fill the gap between decreasing revenues and mushrooming military expenditures by printing large amounts of paper money. Inflation rose rapidly, peaking in 1988 at more than 14,000 percent annually.
Measures taken by the government to lower inflation were largely defeated by natural disaster. In early 1988, the administration of Daniel Ortega (Sandinista junta coordinator 1979–85, president 1985–90) established an austerity program to lower inflation. Price controls were tightened, and a new currency was introduced. As a result, by August 1988, inflation had dropped to an annual rate of 240 percent. The following month, however, Hurricane Joan cut a path directly across the center of the country. Damage was extensive, and the government’s program of large spending to repair the infrastructure destroyed its anti-inflation measures.
In its eleven years in power, the Sandinista government never overcame most of the economic inequalities that it inherited from the Somoza era. Years of war, policy missteps, natural disasters, and the effects of the United States trade embargo all hindered economic development. The early economic gains of the Sandinistas were wiped out by seven years of sometimes precipitous economic decline, and in 1990, by most standards, Nicaragua and most Nicaraguans were considerably poorer than they were in the 1970s.
Sandinistas vs. Contras
Defending his decision to aid, train, and supply the Contras, Ronald Reagan called them “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.”
After the U.S. Congress prohibited federal funding of the Contras through the Boland Amendment in 1983, the Reagan administration continued to back the Contras by raising money from foreign allies and covertly selling arms to Iran (then engaged in a war with Iraq), and channelling the proceeds to the Contras (see the Iran–Contra affair). When this scheme was revealed, Reagan admitted that he knew about Iranian “arms for hostages” dealings but professed ignorance about the proceeds funding the Contras; for this, National Security Council aide Lt. Col.Oliver North took much of the blame.
Senator John Kerry‘s 1988 U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report on links between the Contras and drug imports to the US concluded that “senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras’ funding problems.” The Reagan administration’s support for the Contras continued to stir controversy well into the 1990s. In August 1996, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb published a series titled Dark Alliance,linking the origins of crack cocaine in California to the CIA-Contra alliance. Freedom of Information Act inquiries by the National Security Archive and other investigators unearthed documents showing that White House officials, including Oliver North, knew about and supported using money raised via drug trafficking to fund the Contras. Sen. John Kerry’s report in 1988 led to the same conclusions. However, the Justice Department denied the allegations.
The Contras had little hope of victory, and no political strategy for negotiation or compromise, making the mounting death toll seem especially fruitless to the common people of Nicaragua. Many of Contra leaders sought to restore some version of the corrupt Somoza regime which the Sandinistas had overthrown. There was little chance they would exist as a force without the personal support of Ronald Reagan who justified the 30,000 deaths caused in this bloody conflict in a televised speech asking Congress for still more money and weapons.
My fellow Americans:
I must speak to you tonight about a mounting danger in Central America that threatens the security of the United States. This danger will not go away; it will grow worse, much worse, if we fail to take action now. I’m speaking of Nicaragua, a Soviet ally on the American mainland only 2 hours’ flying time from our own borders. With over a billion dollars in Soviet-bloc aid, the Communist government of Nicaragua has launched a campaign to subvert and topple its democratic neighbors. Using Nicaragua as a base, the Soviets and Cubans can become the dominant power in the crucial corridor between North and South America. Established there, they will be in a position to threaten the Panama Canal, interdict our vital Caribbean sealanes, and, ultimately, move against Mexico. Should that happen, desperate Latin peoples by the millions would begin fleeing north into the cities of the southern United States or to wherever some hope of freedom remained.
State of Emergency (1982–88)
The rights affected also included certain procedural guarantees in the case of detention including habeas corpus. The State of Emergency was not lifted during the 1984 elections. There were many instances where rallies of opposition parties were physically broken up by Sandinsta youth or pro-Sandinista mobs. Opponents to the State of Emergency argued its intent was to crush resistance to the FSLN. James Wheelock justified the actions of the Directorate by saying “… We are annulling the license of the false prophets and the oligarchs to attack the revolution.” On October 5, 1985 the Sandinistas broadened the 1982 State of Emergency and suspended many more civil rights. A new regulation also forced any organization outside of the government to first submit any statement it wanted to make public to the censorship bureau for prior censorship.
End of the War and Free Elections at Last
By 1986 the Contras were besieged by charges of corruption, human-rights abuses, and military ineptitude. A much-vaunted early 1986 offensive never materialized, and Contra forces were largely reduced to isolated acts of terrorism.In October 1987, however, the contras staged a successful attack in southern Nicaragua. Then on 21 December 1987, the Contras launched attacks at La Bonanza, LaSiuna, and LaRosita in the remote Zelaya province, resulting in heavy fighting.These large-scale raids mainly became possible as the Contras were able to use U.S.-provided Redeye missiles against Sandinista Mi-24 helicopter gunships, which had been supplied by the Soviets.Nevertheless, the Contras remained tenuously encamped within Honduras and weren’t able to hold Nicaraguan territory.
In the resulting February 1990 elections, Violeta Chamorro won an upset victory of 55% to 41% over Daniel Ortega, even though polls leading up to the election had clearly indicated a Sandinista victory.
The fact of the matter is that after a decade of war and 30,000 deaths – a significant portion of which were civilian – a free and fair vote from the Nicaraguan people achieved what Ronald Reagan, the CIA, and the Contras never could – the Sandinistas ceded power peacefully to an opposition party, and Nicaragua became a more truly democratic state.
The Bottom Line
- Explaining his urgent desire to overthrow the Sandinistas, U.S. President Ronald Reagan said, “We still have time to do what must be done so history will say of us: We had the vision, the courage, and good sense to come together and act — Republicans and Democrats — when the price was not high and the risks were not great. We left America safe, we left America secure, we left America free — still a beacon of hope to mankind, still a light unto the nations.” Evaluate and respond to this statement from President Reagan. What right do nations have to preemptively attack the governments of other nations? Does it make a difference if those governments come to power by elections or force?
- Draw upon this article, as well as these articles about Augusto Sandino and William Walker. Write a letter to President Reagan explaining why the Sandinistas resent U.S. involvement in Nicaragua.
- Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in Latin America. Research the history and economy of Costa Rica, the wealthiest nation in the region. Compare and contrast the circumstances of these two geographically and historically linked nations and theorize about the factors that have contributed to the divergent conditions in each nation.
- What arguments might Nicaraguans have against the Sandinistas? How would the Sandinistas respond to these arguments? Are these arguments compelling?
- Is it possible for any historical figure or group purely good or bad? Use the example of the Sandinistas to take a position on this topic.