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The Nicaraguan Tangle


Nicaragua’s 1979 insurrection was called the “beautiful revolution.” It united the people against the corrupt Somoza dictatorship and promised a “third way” between neocolonial capitalist exploitation and the Cuban model of socialism. Today, the “new Nicaragua” is sunk in a fratricidal war equipped and financed by the super-powers, while its national aspirations smother. The movement of the Sandinistas toward closer relations with the Soviet Union has left many of their international supporters either publicly critical or else privately embarrassed; some now concentrate on the aggressive policies of the Reagan administration and the “contra” forces it is backing rather than directly defend the revolutionary government.

The Nicaraguan elections in 1984 were central to what has happened since; yet they remain poorly understood. They seemed to present a promising opportunity. The revolution could recover its democratic legitimacy, the people would have a chance to approve or reject Sandinista leadership and arrive at national reconciliation. But the “first free elections in Nicaraguan history” bore a strong resemblance to those conducted by the Somoza dynasty. They marked only a pause in the civil war, and another episode in the contest between Moscow and Washington. After the elections, the number of Nicaraguan rebels increased, the war grew more intense, and the super-powers stepped up their involvement in it. After six years of Sandinista rule, Nicaragua was more entangled with outside powers than ever before.

There was a moment last summer when independent Nicaraguans tried to intervene in the electoral contest. On August 5, 1984 in Chinandega, thousands came to a rally in support of Arturo Cruz, the opposition candidate. The Sandinistas dispatched a mob to disrupt the meeting, and the independent newspaper La Prensa was prohibited from publishing reports of what had happened in Chinandega. After that the contest between the Sandinistas and the opposition turned into a protracted and largely secret series of negotiations conducted by politicians and diplomats. Those with the least to say in the matter were Nicaragua’s voters. The Sandinistas’ advertised “first free elections in Nicaraguan history” joined the long, inglorious line of Central American “demonstration elections”—a tradition founded by the United States in the earlier part of the century.1

For the last decade the Sandinistas have relied on their ability to reconcile their private plans with their public image, and their ideology with domestic and geopolitical realities. Nicaragua is a country of many small businessmen, a large but impoverished petite bourgeoisie, a deeply religious peasantry, and a tiny proletariat in a region in which the United States is the predominant power and in which, except among some of the intelligentsia and young people, the Cuban revolution is held in low regard. Democratic aspirations run deep. The Sandinistas, to gain domestic and international support against Somoza in the spring of 1979, made, as Comandante Bayardo Arce said last May, “three promises that made us internationally presentable and that were manageable for us from a revolutionary standpoint…nonalignment, mixed economy, and political pluralism.”

The same promises were also central to the skillful and flexible policy of the moderate Sandinistas—the Terceristas—who became the internationally prominent leaders of the alliance that brought down Somoza. That alliance included the Catholic Church, most Nicaraguan businessmen, a variety of labor leaders, liberals, social and Christian democrats, communists, and La Prensa. The 1979 insurrection was mainly an urban struggle made possible by new social forces that were unleashed by thirty years of sustained growth. As export agriculture became modernized, dispossessed peasants flocked to urban shantytowns, labor unions were organized, and from a rapidly growing student population arose not only radical activists but a technocratic and commercial middle class stifled by Somoza’s dynastic rule. Indeed, the Nicaraguan revolution was set off by the assassination of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, editor of La Prensa and the leader of the broadbased coalition named UDEL—not by any action of the Sandinistas, whose forces had languished for years in the northern mountains.2

For Daniel Ortega, who was elected president on November 4, and for the other comandantes, participation in the broad alliance was from the first “tactical and temporary,” as was stated in the 1977 “General Platform” of the Terceristas. In 1977, Ortega’s brother Humberto, a leader of the “moderate” Tercerista faction and now defense minister, identified the “civic bourgeois opposition” to Somoza as a “reactionary force”—in the same category, he said, as Somoza’s followers and Yankee imperialists.

Within six months after taking power the Sandinistas succeeded in removing their unreliable revolutionary partners from the most important cabinet posts. In May 1980 the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) stacked the quasi-legislative Council of State with its own supporters, leading to prominent democrats—Alfonso Robelo and Violeta Chamorro—to resign from the five-person revolutionary junta.3

During the year and a half before Ronald Reagan took office, the Sandinistas turned to the Soviet bloc for help in building a large military force, in setting up a tight internal security apparatus, and in training large numbers of party, government, and military personnel.

In 1981 the regime intensified press censorship and stepped up its harassment of the political opposition, independent trade unions, Miskito Indians, and the Church. Expropriations of the property of many non-Somocistas, official corruption, mismanagement of public enterprises ranging from the coffee processors to the national airline, and unsound agricultural commodity pricing, estranged hitherto generous lending institutions such as the World Bank. The Reagan administration did its best to encourage this estrangement. Then in November 1981 the Reagan administration began to equip and train counterrevolutionary groups—a decision that for many transformed Nicaragua’s internal conflict into one between Washington and Managua. But well before the contras became a significant military force, political and economic discontent was already creating its own recruits for counterrevolution. Factories were closing, such as those making textiles and metal products, peasants were balking at imposed state purchases, the supply of foreign exchange and imported industrial goods had been dwindling, and consumer goods had become scarce.

These developments were seized on by hard-liners in Washington, especially in the CIA and the National Security Council, who were determined from the outset to cripple and ultimately destroy the Sandinista regime. And indeed, US support of armed insurgents greatly contributed to Nicaragua’s economic difficulties, fostered a siege mentality among the Sandinistas, and provided an excuse for a military buildup and internal repression in Nicaragua.

By 1983, the Nicaraguan economy was in serious trouble and the country was on a war footing. The Soviet Union was willing to furnish oil and counterinsurgent weapons but not to resolve the economic crisis or provide guarantees of Nicaragua’s security. The favorable US domestic reaction to the intervention in Grenada shattered the Sandinistas’ confidence in the strength of political opposition in the US to an invasion of Nicaragua. They then turned for support to Western Europe and Latin America—only to find that there, too, their prestige had deteriorated.

Closer to home, El Salvador’s guerrillas, on whom the Sandinistas had counted to provide them with a “geopolitical shield,” were making little progress, and many of the Salvadoran insurgent leaders with whom I spoke blamed the Sandinistas’ ultraleft policies for their difficulties in winning non-Marxist backing. Nicaragua’s increasingly radical politics, together with the Reagan administration’s pressures, also helped to shift the center of political gravity to the right in Costa Rica and Honduras, further isolating the Sandinistas. Within Nicaragua itself, both armed and peaceful opposition was growing. The decision to institute compulsory military service in the fall of 1983 was vastly unpopular. I interviewed three hundred Nicaraguans from many different occupations and political groups during two recent visits and most of them told me that they had become fed up with the regime.

In these circumstances, many Sandinista leaders came to see elections, promised grudgingly in 1979, as convenient, even welcome. “Elections are a nuisance as are a lot of things which make up the reality of the revolution,” Bayardo Arce, one of the most powerful comandantes, said during a meeting last May with the Marxist-Leninist Nicaraguan Socialist party (PSN), at which he represented the Sandinista National Directorate. “If it were not for the state of war forced on us…elections would be absolutely inappropriate,” Arce said, confuting the widespread opinion that military pressure had prevented the Sandinistas from fulfilling their commitments to pluralism. What is needed, he continued, are not “bourgeois formalities but the dictatorship of the proletariat.” “Nonetheless,” he argued, these “bourgeois details” can become “arms of the revolution,” in the same way as it has been “useful, for example, to be able to point to entrepreneurial class and private production in a mixed economy while we get on with our strategic goals.”4

Along with Tomás Borge, Bayardo Arce is a leader of the radical faction of the Sandinista party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Today’s factional struggle dates back to the mid-1970s when Jaime Wheelock led a small group of younger Sandinistas into the “Proletarian Tendency.” Wheelock wanted the Sandinistas to organize without delay “a vanguard party” based on the urban proletariat. The Sandinista old guard, led by Tomás Borge and Henry Ruiz, favored “accumulating force” in the countryside, and they became known as the Protracted People’s War (GPP) tendency. In 1977, a third “tendency” (hence “Tercerista”), led by Humberto and Daniel Ortega, seemed to break with the doctrinaire position of Wheelock and Borge and began to organize a broad tactical alliance to prepare for an insurrection. Yet the 1977 “General Platform” of the Terceristas did not question the common Sandinista objective of Cuban-style socialism but argued against announcing this “in an open way.”

The divisions among the Sandinistas gave rise to fierce recriminations, and they accused one another of being “petit bourgeois,” “capitulationist,” and “CIA agents.” Unlike the Salvadoran revolutionary groups during the 1970s, the Sandinistas steered clear of the fundamental ideological debates then taking place in the international communist movement. The Sandinistas argued about tactics for gaining power, not over what to do once they took power. In Havana in March 1979 the three groups were formally reunited. 5

Little more than a year before the final offensive in 1979, the total number of militants in the three factions was probably less than three hundred. When the Sandinistas gained power, the three tendencies, now no longer those of small marginal groups, began to struggle over the spoils and instruments of power. The divisions among the Sandinistas have often produced puzzling and self-destructive policies. Many observers attribute the Sandinistas’ failure to hold elections during the first several months after coming to power, when their popularity was at its height, to an inability to unite behind a candidate. Sharp infighting between the moderates and the hard-liners also preceded Daniel Ortega’s ultimate approval as the party’s presidential candidate in July 1984.

In his talk to the Nicaraguan Socialist party in May 1984, Arce made it clear to his “fellow communists,” as he called them, that the Nicaraguan elections were designed from the beginning to appeal to Western liberals, especially congressional Democrats, European social democrats, and the Contadora countries. Elections would enable the FSLN to “disarm the international bourgeoisie” and perpetuate the “internal neutralization of the United States.”6

  1. 1

    See Edward S. Herman and Frank Brodhead, Demonstration Elections: U.S.-Staged Elections in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam and El Salvador (South End Press, 1984).

  2. 2

    A former high Sandinista government official who left Nicaragua in 1984, Jorge Alaniz Pinell, said that the relative popular support ofUDEL and the FSLN was demonstrated by the fact that Chamorro’s assassination set off widespread demonstrations and strikes while “no death…of a Sandinista leader…provoked at any time similar reactions.” He cites Humberto Ortega’s admission that the Sandinistas were unable to lead the mass movement at that time “because we did not have enough cadre.” See Pinell’s book, Nicaragua (Costa Rica: Kosmos, 1985).

  3. 3

    One of the early acts of the reformed Council was to postpone the elections until 1985. In February 1984, the Council announced that elections would take place on November 4, 1984.

  4. 4

    Arce’s secret speech was printed in the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia on July 31, 1984 and has recently been republished in full in Douglas W. Payne’s The Democratic Mask: The Consolidation of the Sandinista Revolution (Freedom House, 1985). Sandinista authorities have acknowledged the speech and PSN officials confirm its authenticity.

  5. 5

    For further discussion of the divisions among the Sandinistas see David Nolan’s The Ideology of the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan Revolution (University of Miami Press, 1984); Jorge Alaniz Pinell, Nicaragua (Costa Rica: Kosmos, 1985); Plutarco Hernandez, El FSLN Por Dentro (Costa Rica, 1982); Humberto Ortega, “Nicaragua—The Strategy of Victory,” an interview published in Sandinistas Speak, edited by Bruce Marcus (Pathfinder, 1982); Carlos Fonseca Amador, “Nota sobre algunos problemas de hoy” (March 1976), published as an appendix to Hernandez’s book cited above; “La Crisis Interna y las Tendencias,” the position of the Proletarian Tendency, published in Coleccion Cuatro de Mayo (Nicaragua, 1978). Interviews with Humberto Ortega and Henry Ruiz appear in the first issue of the magazine Nicarahuác, published by the Ministry of Culture in May–June 1980. All the listed articles and statements will appear in The Central American Crisis Reader, edited by Robert Leiken and Barry Rubin, to be published by Summit Books in 1986.

  6. 6

    An internal FSLN party document stated: “Our objective is to make our electoral campaign become a factor in the United States electoral campaign. We can do that only by literally ‘invading’ the United States media” through daily press conferences, organization of foreign press visits, “trips by leaders of the revolution for purposes of influencing opinion about the election,” coordination with “Solidarity committees,” articles written under the leaders’ names for the major mass media entities, and in general the “creation of an image” aimed at establishing a bond between the candidates and the [US] public. The document, “Promotional Strategy for the FSLN Electoral Campaign,” was obtained by an editor of La Prensa after the elections.

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