Who Are the Sandinistas?

It’s hard to spend any time in Nicaragua without running into an American delegation of some sort. I met one group that had come from Boston for a four-day tour, including Howard Simons, head of the Nieman Fellows program at Harvard; Doris Kearns, the author of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, and her husband, Richard Goodwin. On their last night in the country, the group met for dinner with Stephen Kinzer, the correspondent for The New York Times. I joined them at Los Antojitos, a bustling spot with outdoor dining where tropical birds squawk loudly when they don’t get enough attention.

The delegates had met that afternoon with President Daniel Ortega, and now they were comparing notes. They seemed impressed by his hospitality—he had spent more than two hours with the group—and his appearance—he wore Guess jeans and a Members Only jacket. At one point, Tomás Borge had barged in on the meeting, making a strong impression on one of the women present. “He held my hand an extra long time,” she said.

As the meal wore on, the conversation dwelled increasingly on US policy toward Nicaragua. Gregory Treverton, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council staff, kept coming back to the matter of contra aid. There was much about the contras that bothered him, he said; nevertheless, he added, “in global terms, the price being paid here is small.” Stephen Kinzer pointed out that fifteen Nicaraguans were dying every day. Perhaps so, Treverton said, but, he asked, would the Sandinistas be opening things up here if it weren’t for the war?

That question has absorbed Washington for months now. Are the Sandinistas sincere when they express their faith in elections and press freedom? Or are they merely responding to military pressure? Despite all the attention that has been given to these matters, the Sandinistas remain an enigma. What is the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN)? Who belongs to it? What kind of training do party members receive? What are the basic tenets of the Sandinista faith?

Sandinismo is commonly defined as a combination of Sandino, Marx, and Jesus, of nationalism, socialism, and Christianity. Yet the blend can take bizarre forms. The Sandinistas subscribe to the Marxist laws of historical materialism, yet they regularly invoke the principles of Christian spirituality; the foreign minister is a priest and Daniel Ortega had his children baptized. The Sandinistas’ insistence on party discipline would no doubt please Lenin, yet their willingness to admit error might impress Rousseau. The Sandinistas believe strongly in a code of moral puritanism and they will spend all night explaining it to you over a bottle of rum. They adhere to a fixed set of immutable truths that they always seem to be revising.

Strangest of all, the Sandinista Front is a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party that works with some degree of pluralism. While it is common for revolutionary vanguards to voice support for political freedom, they rarely…

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