The Sandinistas

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?
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

Sandinista National Liberation Front.

The Sandinista National Liberation Front – also called the Sandinistas or the FSLN – are a former guerrilla army and ruling party of Nicaragua. Following a decade of single party rule, they submitted to free and fair elections in 1990, ushering in Nicaragua’s current period of period of peace, democratic stability, and relative prosperity after decades of corrupt dictatorship, civil war, and domination by the U.S. and its corporations.

The FSLN originated in the milieu of various oppositional organisations, youth and student groups in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The University of Léon, and the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) in Managua were two of the principal centers of activity.

The Sandinistas took their name from Augusto César Sandino (1895–1934), the charismatic leader of Nicaragua’s nationalist rebellion against the US occupation of the country from 1922–1934. Sandino was assassinated in 1934 by the Nicaraguan National Guard (Guardia Nacional), the US-equipped police force of Anastasio Somoza, whose family ruled the country from 1936 until they were overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979.

Managua after the earthquake, 1972

Anastasio Somoza Debayle in Washington, 1971.
Anastasio Somoza Debayle in Washington, 1971.

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.

Managua, 1972.
Managua, 1972.

This blatant greed – while so many suffered and languished in the aftermath – was a key turning point in making the Somoza dictatorship intolerable to every day Nicaraguans.

Rise of the Resistance

In December 1974, a group of Sandinistas seized government hostages at a party in the house of the Minister of Agriculture in the Managua suburb Los Robles, among them several leading Nicaraguan officials and Somoza relatives. The siege was carefully timed to take place after the departure of the US ambassador from the gathering. At 10:50 pm, a group of 17 young guerrillas entered the house. They killed the Minister, who tried to shoot them, during the takeover. The guerrillas received US$2 million ransom, and had their official communiqué read over the radio and printed in the newspaper La Prensa.

Over the next year, the guerrillas also succeeded in getting 14 Sandinista prisoners released from jail. One of the released prisoners was Daniel Ortega, who would later become the president of Nicaragua.The group also lobbied for an increase in wages for National Guard soldiers to 500 córdobas ($71 at the time).The Somoza government responded with further censorship, intimidation, torture, and murder.

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.

Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, newspaper editor and fierce critic of Somoza.
Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, newspaper editor and fierce critic of Somoza.

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.

In August, the Sandinistas staged a hostage-taking. Twenty-three Sandinista commandos led by Edén Pastora seized the entire Nicaraguan congress, taking nearly 1,000 hostages, including Somoza’s nephew José Somoza Abrego and cousin Luis Pallais Debayle. Somoza gave in to their demands and paid a $500,000 ransom, released 59 political prisoners (including Sandinista leader Tomás Borge), broadcast a communiqué with FSLN’s call for general insurrection and gave the guerrillas safe passage to Panama.

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.

Nicaraguan Revolution

On June 4, a general strike was called by the Sandinistas to last until Somoza fell and an uprising was launched in Managua. On June 16, the formation of a provisional Nicaraguan government in exile, consisting of a five-member Junta of National Reconstruction, was announced and organized in Costa Rica. By the end of that month, with the exception of the capital, most of Nicaragua was under Sandinista control, including León and Matagalpa, the two largest cities in Nicaragua after Managua.

On July 9, the provisional government in exile released a government program, in which it pledged to organize an effective democratic regime, promote political pluralism and universal suffrage, and ban ideological discrimination, except for those promoting the “return of Somoza’s rule”. On July 17, Somoza resigned, handed over power to Francisco Urcuyo, and fled to Miami. While initially seeking to remain in power to serve out Somoza’s presidential term, Urcuyo seceded his position to the junta and fled to Guatemala two days later.

Victory Day, Sandinistas enter Managua, July 19, 1979.
Victory Day, Sandinistas enter Managua, July 19, 1979.

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)

Daniel Ortega, Sandinista President of Nicaragua.
Daniel Ortega, Sandinista President of Nicaragua.

The Sandinistas inherited a country with a debt of 1.6 billiondollars (US), an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 war dead, 600,000 homeless, and a devastated economic infrastructure. To begin the task of establishing a new government, they created a Council of National Reconstruction, made up of five appointed members. Three of the appointed members belonged to Sandinistas.  Only three votes were needed to pass law.

Upon assuming power, the Sandinistas’s official political platform included the following: nationalization of property owned by the Somozas and their supporters; land reform; improved rural and urban working conditions; free unionization for all workers, both urban and rural; price fixing for commodities of basic necessity; improved public services, housing conditions, education; abolition of torture, political assassination and the death penalty; protection of democratic liberties; equality for women; non-aligned foreign policy; formation of a “popular army” under the leadership of the Sandinistas.

The Sandinistas’s literacy campaign sent teachers into the countryside and within six months, half a million people had been taught rudimentary reading, bringing the national illiteracy rate down from over 50% to just under 12%. Over 100,000 Nicaraguans participated as literacy teachers. One of the stated aims of the literacy campaign was to create an electorate which would be able to make informed choices at the promised elections. The successes of the literacy campaign was recognized by UNESCO.


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.

Despite Sandinista efforts toward reform, Nicaragua remained one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.
Despite Sandinista efforts toward reform, Nicaragua remained one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

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

Augusto Sandino.
Augusto Sandino.

Like their namesake, Augusto Sandino, the Sandinistas passionately opposed U.S. intervention – both military and economic – into the internal affairs of Nicaragua.  In 1983, as tensions between Washington and Mangua sharpened, New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer interviewed Comandante Jaime Wheelock, writer, former student activist and Minister of Agrarian Reform and one of the Sandinistas’ principal theoreticians, who “paced his small office, rubbing his temples as he spoke. ”What guides Sandinism,’ he said, ”is the conviction that our country, Nicaragua, has never been a country with real sovereignty or national independence. Nicaragua has been an appendage of the United States. We have been abused and humiliated. Nicaragua was kept dependent and backward, a country of illiterate farm laborers. Our function was to grow sugar, cocoa and coffee for the United States; we served the dessert at the imperialist dinner table.’ The view that Nicaragua has been badly treated by history – and, more specifically, by the United States – is gospel to the Sandinistas. Nicaraguans exploited and tyrannized each other for many decades, but to the Sandinistas, the ultimate blame for the country’s underdevelopment belongs in Washington. And, indeed, United States intervention has been more heavy-handed and sustained in Nicaragua than anywhere else in Central America,” Kinzer wrote.

Upon assuming office in 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan condemned the Sandinistas for joining with Cuba in supporting “Marxist” revolutionary movements in other Latin American countries such as El Salvador. His administration  authorized  the CIA to begin financing, arming and training rebels, most of whom were former members of Somoza’s National Guard, as anti-Sandinista guerrillas that were branded “counter-revolutionary” by leftists (contrarrevolucionarios in Spanish).This was shortened to Contras, a label the force chose to embrace.

The Contras operated out of camps in the  neighboring countries of Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south and  had little popular support within Nicaragua. As was typical in guerrilla warfare, they engaged in a campaign of economic sabotage in an attempt to combat the Sandinista government and disrupted shipping by planting underwater mines in Nicaragua’s Corinto harbour, an action condemned by the International Court of Justice as illegal. The U.S. also sought to place economic pressure on the Sandinistas, and, as with Cuba, the Reagan administration imposed a full trade embargo.

The Contras also carried out a systematic campaign to disrupt the social reform programs of the government. This campaign included attacks on schools, health centers and the majority of the rural population that was sympathetic to the Sandinistas. Widespread murder, rape, and torture were also used as tools to destabilize the government and to “terrorize” the population into collaborating with the Contras. Throughout this campaign, the Contras received military and financial support from the CIA and the Reagan Administration.This campaign has been condemned internationally for its many human rights violations. In 1984, at the height of the conflict, the International Court of Justice judged that the United States Government had been in violation of International law when it supported the Contras.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

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.

Crack cocaine sold in the U.S. to fund the Contras.
Crack cocaine sold in the U.S. to fund the Contras.

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.

Reagan’s War

Revelations of U.S. involvement with Contras spawned widespread protest in the States and stubborn refusals to negotiate on the part of Sandinista leaders.
Revelations of U.S. involvement with Contras spawned widespread protest in the States and stubborn refusals to negotiate on the part of Sandinista leaders.

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.
Neither the Sandinistas nor the Russians had any such plans, then or now.  Instead, Reagan’s crusade against the Sandinistas seemed to grow out of his own personal anti-communist fervor.

State of Emergency (1982–88)

In March 1982 the Sandinistas declared an official State of Emergency. They argued that this was a response to attacks by counter-revolutionary forces.The State of Emergency lasted six years, until January 1988, when it was lifted.

Under the new “Law for the Maintenance of Order and Public Security” the “Tribunales Populares Anti-Somozistas” allowed for the indefinite holding of suspected counter-revolutionaries without trial. The State of Emergency, however, most notably affected rights and guarantees contained in the “Statute on Rights and Guarantees of Nicaraguans”.Many civil liberties were curtailed or canceled such as the freedom to organize demonstrations, the inviolability of the home, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the freedom to strike.

All independent news program broadcasts were suspended. In total, twenty-four programs were cancelled. In addition, Sandinista censor Nelba Cecilia Blandón issued a decree ordering all radio stations to take broadcasts from government radio station La Voz de La Defensa de La Patria every six hours.

One of many funerals during the turbulent conflict.
One of many funerals during the turbulent conflict.

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.

There were isolated protests among the population against the draft implemented by the Sandinista government, which even resulted in full-blown street clashes in Masaya in 1988. However, polls showed the Sandinista government still enjoyed strong support from Nicaraguans. Political opposition groups were splintered and the Contras began to experience defections, although United States aid maintained them as a viable military force.

After a cutoff in U.S. military support and with both sides facing international pressure to bring an end to the conflict, the Contras agreed to negotiations with the Sandinistas. With the help of five Central American Presidents, including Ortega, it was agreed that a voluntary demobilization of the contras should start in early December 1989, in order to facilitate free and fair elections in Nicaragua in February 1990 (even though the Reagan administration had pushed for a delay of Contra disbandment).

Daniel Ortega concedes electoral defeat and the Sandinistas transfer power peacefully to Violeta Chamorro and her UNO party, 1990.
Daniel Ortega concedes electoral defeat and the Sandinistas transfer power peacefully to Violeta Chamorro and her UNO party, 1990.

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.

In the 21st Century

Ortega was an unsuccessful candidate for president in 1996 and 2001, before winning the 2006 presidential election. In office, he made alliances with fellow Latin American socialists, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and under his leadership, Nicaragua joined the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas.

With the late-2000s recession, Ortega in 2011 characterised capitalism as in its “death throes.”  He also said God was punishing the United States with the financial crisis for trying to impose its economic principles on poor countries. “It’s incredible that in the most powerful country in the world, which spends billions of dollars on brutal wars … people do not have enough money to stay in their homes.”

While in office, Ortega has consolidated his political power, eroding the democratic reforms to which he had agreed in the late 1980s.

In January 2014 the National Assembly, dominated by the FSLN, approved constitutional amendments that abolished term limits for the presidency and allowed a president to run for an unlimited number of five-year terms. Although billed by the FSLN as a measure to ensure stability, critics charged that the amendments threatened Nicaraguan democracy. The constitutional reforms also gave Ortega the sole power to appoint military and police commanders.

In June 2016, the Nicaraguan supreme court ruled to oust Eduardo Montealegre, the leader of the main opposition party, leaving the main opposition coalition with no means of contesting the November 2016 national elections. In August 2016, Ortega chose his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his vice-presidential running-mate for re-election.

According to the Washington Post, figures announced on November 7, 2016 put Daniel Ortega in line for his third consecutive term as President, also being his fourth term overall. The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) reported Ortega and Murillo won 72.4 percent of the vote, with 68 percent turnout. The opposition coalition had called the election a “farce” and had called for the boycott of the election. International observers were not allowed to observe the vote.

In addition, Ortega’s family owns three of the nine free-to-air television channels in Nicaragua, and controls a fourth. Four of the remaining five are controlled by Mexican mogul Ángel González, and are generally considered to be aligned with Ortega’s ruling FSLN party.

As of April 19, 2018, Amnesty International and the IACHR of the Organization of American States claim that Ortega has engaged in a violent oppression campaign against protesters, while government officials and government-owned media have denied these claims.  In the summer of 2018, violent protests against Ortega roiled Nicaragua, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of protesters at the hands of police and the military, and almost universal condemnation from abroad, as well as from Nicaragua’s clergy.

The Bottom Line

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. What arguments might Nicaraguans have against the Sandinistas?  How would the Sandinistas respond to these arguments?  Are these arguments compelling?
  5. 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.


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A memorial to the Sandinistas killed during the violence of the 1980s. (Granada, Nicaragua, 2015.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

Scenes from Nicaragua, 2015 – supplementary photos to enhance a sense of place.