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The Sandinista Revolution

The Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSLN) marched into Managua on July 19 and declared Nicaragua liberated. They established a temporary (provisional) government. They seized all television stations, confiscated properties that had belonged to the Somozas and nationalized the banking system. Some 6,500 members of Somoza's military, considered by the Sandinistas and the public to be criminals of the worst sort, were imprisoned. A few were shot illegally. Officially capital punishment was ended and the number of former National Guardsmen in prison was reduced to 3,500.

Catholic bishops issued a warning against any attempt by the Sandinistas to establish socialism of the "undemocratic" variety. The Sandinistas were ruling under a state of emergency and still concerned about enemies of the revolution. Fearing something less than the democratic society they had hoped for, the Catholic bishops announced their opposition to the Sandinista regime. The Sandinistas began to establish ties with East Europe's communist regimes. The regime spoke of its blood ties with the Palestinian cause. Cuba sent a thousand teachers to Nicaragua, and Nicaragua sent 700 children to Cuba, where they were to be schooled in Marxism-Leninism.

In January, 1980, the Sandinista regime began expropriating Indian lands at Taswapowne, Wulkiamp and Yulo. The Sandinistas were unhappy about an unwillingness among labor unions to amalgamate with the Sandinista trade union, and they were resorting to coercion. A step in the direction of democracy was taken in June when the regime lifted the nation's state of emergency. Some independent political parties conducted meetings and held rallies, but some of these gatherings were disrupted by the Sandinista Youth Movement. In August the Sandinista Defense Minister, Humberto Ortega, announced that elections were to be postponed until 1985. Such elections, he added, would be "to advance revolutionary power, not to raffle off power."

The Carter administration, about to come to an end, expressed concern over Nicaragua's aid to guerrillas in El Salvador. Ronald Reagan became president in January 1981 and followed the Carter administration in cutting aid to Nicaragua. Meanwhile on Nicaragua's east coast the Miskito Indians were rebelling against the Sandinistas. An uncooperative labor union leader, Carlos Huembes, was beaten by Sandinistas. Painted on the walls of his house was "death to traitors." Some other dissidents were jailed, and, on March 16, mobs of Sandinista supporters broke up a rally of the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement. Unhappy with the newspaper La Prensa, the Sandinista Interior Minister advised the paper's staff that they should close down for a couple of days or their presses might be destroyed by vandals. On July 10, La Prensa was forced to close down temporarily because the paper had printed photos of defaced Catholic billboards. And the newspaper was denounced as reactionary.

By the end of 1981, the Sandinistas had announced that their regime was Marxist-Leninist. Implied was that bourgeois freedoms were of little interest to them. The Sandinistas were struggling for control against enemies that they were making and labeling reactionary. La Prensa was still functioning with some freedom and printed the results of a poll that concluded that only 28 percent of Nicaraguans supported the Sandinistas. The Sandinista fight against "counter-revolution" was by now a military operation. Many of the Miskito Indians were fleeing their homeland. Some were in Sandinista concentration camps, and some were in refugee in Honduras. Near and across Nicaragua's border with Honduras were about a thousand anti-Sandinistas who had taken up arms, some of them former Sandinistas – not unlike the former Cuban revolutionaries who had turned against Castro.

The Reagan administration had begun a covert funding of anti-Sandinista forces. Reagan spoke "alien influences and philosophies" in the hemisphere. He spoke against the Sandinista suppression of labor unions and rival political parties, and he denounced Sandinista attacks on the Miskito Indians.

Sandinistas intensified measures to defend their power. They moved against Protestant denominations in Nicaragua, and they took over twenty Catholic Churches, claiming that the churches were involved in counter-revolutionary propaganda. Repressions continued through 1983. In 1984, the CIA mined Nicaragua's harbors in a covert operation that produced nothing that they could consider effective. Some nations friendly to the US condemned the action, and Nicaragua sued the US in the World Court. In May, 1984, Reagan urged Congress to approve aid to those having taken up arms against the Sandinistas. Instead, the US House of Representatives, under Democratic Party influence, voted 241 to 177 for prohibiting CIA funds for use in funding the military opposition Contras.

The Reagan administration was opposed to deal making with the Sandinista regime. Mexico, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela formed what was called the Contradora Group, and they campaigned for negotiated settlements in the conflicts within Nicaragua and the conflict that was taking place in El Salvador.

The elections that the Sandinistas had promised for 1985 were moved up to November 1984 – the same month that Reagan was to face re-election. The voting age in Nicaragua was lowered to sixteen. The government in Managua repressed anti-Sandinista demonstrations. The country's three major opposition parties chose not to run candidates because of Sandinista press censorship and other measures. Daniel Ortega, of the Sandinista party, won the presidency with 67 percent of the vote, and the Sandinistas won 61 of the 96 seats of the newly created National Assembly.

The elections added little political support for the Sandinista regime, and neither did Nicaragua's economic problems. Trade with other American countries was suffering, unemployment was high and inflation was skyrocketing. The Contradora nations were expressing hostility to US intervention in Central America. The Reagan administration was sending aid illegally to the anti-Sandinista forces and continued to be opposed to negotiations or bargaining with the Sandinistas and disdainful of any new elections in Nicaragua that were to be supervised by the Sandinistas.

President Reagan claimed that the Contradora plan for peace in Central America was "fatally flawed." A leader of the Contradora nations, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica (Nicaragua's neighbor to the south), persuaded Daniel Ortega to give real democracy a try. In August, 1987, at the town of Escipulas in Guatemala, the Sandinistas and the heads of Central American states met and signed accords that provided for settlement of Central America's conflicts. And that year Arias won the Nobel Prize for Peace.

The Sandinistas agreed to liberalize and reform their electoral laws and to hold free and fair elections no later than February 25, 1990. In those elections, Daniel Ortega again ran for the presidency. And he lost. The winner was Violetta Chamorro, owner of La Prensa, who had 54.7 percent of the vote to 40.2 for Ortega. The Sandinistas went into loyal opposition.

Ortega was to run again and lose six years later, and yet again in 2001. Like many European communists in the 1990s, he has been described as having given up his Marxism-Leninism in favor of Democratic Socialism. He won the 2006 presidential election with 38.07 percent of the vote. His political party won the largest representation in parliament, not quite one-third of the seats.

The son of the last Somoza family president remains in exile in the United States, where he had been given amnesty and had family connections dating back to Philadelphia in the early 1900s. Somoza Portocarrero, born in 1951 and a man of considerable wealth, planned to return to Nicaragua early in the 21st century, but he found it inopportune to do.


Nicaragua's Continuing Revolution 1977-1990: A Chronology, by David A. Ridenour and David Almasi, 199.

Latin America: the Development of its Civilization, Third Edition, Chapter 30, by Helen Miller Bailey and Abraham P Nasatir, 1973

Americas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean, by Peter Winn, 1999

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