The Battle for Nicaragua

The elections of November 1984 were a turning point both for the Sandinista regime and for its opponents. As I described in a previous article, the election of President Daniel Ortega took place without the participation of the principal opposition coalition—the Coordinadora group—led by Arturo Cruz, who claimed that the government would not allow his group the minimum conditions necessary for a fair campaign. Notwithstanding the judgment of some observers that the vote was “a step toward democracy,” the Sandinistas soon tightened their control over civilian life—abetted, as in the past, by the tactics of the Reagan administration.

On the evening of November 6, while the votes were being counted both in Managua and the US, the administration circulated intelligence reports suggesting that a Soviet freighter might be delivering M16-21 fighters to Nicaragua. The administration used the scare to persuade members of Congress to support direct military action if M16s appeared in Nicaragua. In fact none were delivered. The US sent a reconnaissance plane whose sonic booms were heard twice in Managua. The Sandinistas, predicting an imminent invasion, as they had eight times before, took the occasion to militarize the country further and impose harsher controls. (The shipment in question was of one of two delivering a total of six Soviet MI-24 combat helicopters. What was new about it was that it was the first to come in a Soviet freighter and directly from a Soviet port.)

The invasion scare was over in a few days. But throughout November and December, activists from the opposition parties and groups were harrassed and jailed often for brief periods—including followers of the Social Christian party, the Independent Liberal party led by Virgilio Godoy, and several union leaders. Press censorship became more severe and dozens of opposition leaders were denied exit visas. Small merchants found themselves in increasing difficulty with the government, and demonstrations against the draft were suppressed. The attacks from rebel forces based in Honduras and Nicaragua became much more intense, and more of the countryside became embroiled in a civil war backed by the superpowers. A report from Managua in the London Sunday Times of January 13, 1985 noted that rebel

attacks are getting to the point where the government, instead of publicizing the killings [by the rebels], as it used to, appears to have decided that fear of demoralization overcomes the value of publicity.

After the elections, the number of people illegally leaving the country sharply increased. In early 1985, the Costa Rican minister of public security announced that in three days, three thousand Nicaraguan youths had entered his country. “Before the refugees were campesinos—but now we’re getting young people from the city.”

Many of them were escaping the draft, which was imposed on young men over fifteen in 1983 and became an acute issue throughout the country in 1984. According to that year’s annual report of the OAS’s Inter-American Human Rights Commission: “On many occasions young people who are ineligible …

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