Daniel Ortega
Daniel Ortega; drawing by David Levine


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

Arce argued that the international demand for elections could be turned to the Sandinistas’ domestic advantage:

Imperialism demands three things of us: to abandon interventionism, to abandon our strategic ties with the Soviet Union…and to be democratic….

We cannot cease to be internationalists without ceasing to be revolutionaries. We cannot cease our strategic relationships without ceasing to be revolutionaries….

But the superstructural aspects, so-called democracy, bourgeois democracy, have something that we can manage and even profit from for socialist construction.

He went on to explain that elections could “legitimate” the construction of a “Red constitution.” By approving of the elections, social democrats and liberals would, in Arce’s words, provide “the arms” for “terminating this whole artifice of pluralism…which has been useful up to now, but has reached its end.”

“The artifice of pluralism” was a telling phrase. After the American Marines occupied Nicaragua in 1912, the US now and then sponsored “free elections” while building up the Nicaraguan National Guard under Anastasio Somoza and helping it to suppress the rebels led by Augusto Sandino. The last Somoza, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a West Point graduate who spoke English better than he spoke Spanish, also staged elections while monopolizing political power. He tolerated a noisy but impotent opposition, censored the press, and enriched himself with international earthquake relief funds.

The 1979 Sandinista revolution was supposed to end all that. Nicaragua was to be free from plunderers, from corruption and “national betrayal,” from foreigners claiming to bring the benefits of Christianity and democracy. But this was not to be. After four years of Sandinista rule and three of Reagan’s, Somoza and the big powers cast long shadows over Nicaragua’s future.


In July of 1983, Daniel Ortega, on behalf of the governing junta, invited Arturo Cruz to return to Nicaragua for conversations. “Daniel was visualizing my becoming the opposition’s presidential candidate—credible but meek,” Cruz believed. A former member of the Sandinista’s junta, then its ambassador to the United States, Cruz broke with the Sandinistas in November 1981 in protest against what he called the increasingly repressive methods of the ruling Sandinista National Directorate.

As a young man Cruz participated in two unsuccessful coups against Somoza and was imprisoned by him. Later he worked with Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the leader of UDEL, the “bourgeois” civic opposition movement. The UDEL coalition included trade unions, opposition parties, among them the Nicaraguan Socialist party, as well as business, student groups, and community organizations. When the Terceristas formed “The Twelve”—a group of prestigious Nicaraguans created to legitimize the armed struggle—the FSLN considered Cruz a natural for membership. Even today Cruz still has, as he told me, “a hangup on the Sandinistas.” “I came to admire them because they fought bravely, risking their lives against the Somoza tyranny.”

When Cruz broke with the Sandinistas, he returned to his previous job with the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. The Sandinistas later made much of this in order to portray Cruz as “Washington’s candidate.” But if he had anyone’s support in Washington, it was not the Reagan administration’s. In fact, he said repeatedly that the administration’s militaristic policies were making things more difficult for the beleaguered political opposition in Nicaragua.7

The opposition—a loosely organized coalition of political parties, trade unions, and business organizations called the Coordinadora, the short name for the National Democratic Coordinator (CDN)—was at a disadvantage in challenging the Sandinistas. The FSLN controlled the cabinet, the state security apparatus, and the army, the militias, the police, state TV, and radio. The local block committees (the Sandinista Defense Committees—CDS) in charge of such basic functions as ration cards, visas, and applications for public jobs and housing, had become extensions of the Sandinista party. Opposition groups had been forbidden to hold outdoor rallies since early 1981; political and trade union activists were frequently detained or imprisoned, and opposition offices were attacked by Sandinista mobs called turbas; pamphlets and newspapers were confiscated. The Sandinistas encouraged people loyal to them to join the opposition parties and trade unions and form factions with them.

In November 1983 the traditional anti-Somoza Democratic Conservative party split apart. The government declared that the party could be legally represented only by a minority faction that agreed to participate in the elections under the Sandinistas’ ground rules. The rest of the party, the majority, was stripped of its legal status despite demands from other parties that a party assembly be held to determine which faction held the majority.

The Coordinadora was itself torn by internal disputes. It had gradually come to include most of the UDEL and other groups that had opposed Somoza but then came to oppose the Sandinistas as well. Its right wing was dominated by the landholders of the old anti-Somoza Conservative party and the leaders of the business council (COSEP). On the left were three groups: the Social Christians (reform-minded Christian Democrats who are close to the Catholic hierarchy); the “progressive” Conservatives (many of whom admired Cruz); and a militant anti-Somoza labor federation composed mainly of stevedores and factory workers. In the center was another labor federation, representing skilled workers, truckers, and independent tradesmen, and the small Constitutional Liberal and Social Democratic parties. The Sandinistas’ decision to hold elections put this fragile coalition under great strain.

The older Conservative party politicians and some of the more prominent business leaders, for example, were by now convinced that only force could move the Sandinistas—preferably American invasion. They were in touch with leaders of the largest group of contras—the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), which had been trained and financed by the CIA. The leaders of the FDN, along with hard-liners in the National Security Council and the CIA, encouraged the right wing of the Coordinadora to believe that Arturo Cruz was a potential “zancudo,” the term that had been used for those who, for a price, had collaborated in Somoza’s staged elections. They reminded them that Cruz’s aim, as he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1983, was to “moderate,” not to “challenge Sandinista power,” and that he favored “dissidence,” not “counter-revolution.” When he was in the Sandinista government and after he quit, Cruz wrote, he wanted to “reconcile the revolutionary family,” and he spoke out against the contras.

But after several weeks of bickering, the CDN nominated Cruz on July 20, 1984, three days before he returned to Managua from Washington. The right wing of the CDN still distrusted Cruz but reluctantly agreed that he would be the most popular candidate the opposition could present. The CDN’s delay in nominating Cruz left him little more than a week to hold public meetings. The Sandinistas, still at that time anxious to have Cruz take part in the elections on their own terms, agreed to extend the registration period until August 5 to provide the time for negotiating the conditions under which the CDN would participate in the campaign. If the CDN did not register by August 5, the government said, it would be allowed only to hold meetings indoors with active CDN members.

In December 1983 the CDN had stated nine conditions for their participation in the election. These included demands for separation of the state and the FSLN party, respect for human rights, lifting the February 1982 state of emergency, an amnesty law, trade union and religious freedom, judicial independence, and legal safeguards such as habeas corpus. They also called for a “national dialogue” among all Nicaraguan factions including the armed opposition. Such a “dialogue”—the word has become central to Central American politics—would recognize that those who took part in it had a legitimate place in Nicaragua’s future. Cruz put emphasis on the last point, and it was on this issue that talks with the Sandinistas broke down on August 3.

The FSLN claimed that the CDN, by insisting on the legitimacy of the rebels, would be using the elections to promote the war against the government. Some in the CDN—especially the Social Christians and the unions—wanted to take part in a political contest that could begin to democratize Nicaragua. They were caught between implacable extremes—the Sandinista hard-liners, with Cuban and Soviet backing, and the CDN right, with its friends supported by the CIA. Those with guns had the most powerful patrons.

The CDN right wing may well have supported the demand for talks with the rebels while expecting it to be rejected. For Cruz the demand for talks was consistent with his support of the two attempts by the rebel Commander Eden Pastora to reach a political settlement between 1982 and 1984, as well as with the position of the Nicaraguan bishops in their appeal of April 1984. Cruz also found the demand consistent with the proposals of the Contadora group for “national reconciliation.” But, in view of the Sandinistas’ categorical rejection of talks, the CDN’s demand appeared quixotic at best and, at worst, an attempt to discredit the elections. It thus proved to be a political blunder, permitting the Sandinistas to brand the CDN a “contra front.” As Daniel Ortega put it, the CDN’s program confused the minimum conditions for participation in elections (such as freedom of the press, absence of harassment, access to the public media, guarantees of personal safety, etc.) with issues that belonged in the CDN’s campaign platform.

Before the date for Cruz’s registration had passed, the CDN, despite threats from the police, organized a series of rallies throughout Nicaragua. These came to a climax on August 5 at the rally in the historically pro-Sandinista city of Chinandega. Several thousand people turned out to support Cruz. A mob of turbas organized by the Sandinistas disrupted the Chinandega meeting. A public surge of support for the opposition did not figure in the Sandinistas’ electoral plans and they prohibited La Prensa from publishing reports from Chinandega. Had the news of what took place in Chinandega reached Nicaraguans in other cities, they might have been emboldened to do likewise. The memory of what happened in Chinandega remained during the rest of the contest between the FSLN and the CDN—as a promise for some, and a menace for others.

Cruz won the next round in what, after Chinandega, became a diplomatic struggle with the FSLN, conducted behind closed doors. In late August he was officially received by the presidents of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. That he was welcome in Venezuela, whose ruling Acción Democrática is the largest Latin American party in the Socialist International, underscored the desire of leading Latin American social democrats to have him included in the elections. President Belisario Betancur of Colombia, the de facto leader of the Contadora group—which includes Mexico, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela—accepted Cruz’s proposal that he mediate the conflict over the elections. Now Cruz became central to any evaluation of the elections’ legitimacy. By September, the presidents of the neighboring democracies were in effect telling Cruz: “You were right not to register—at least some of your conditions for participation are valid.” From September on, Betancur and the Socialist International were continually trying to act as brokers in a deal between the Sandinistas and the opposition.

Last December, looking back on the events before the election, Betancur told me, “It was obvious that Contadora’s fate might well hinge on the Nicaraguan elections. Peace not only in Nicaragua but in the whole region was at stake.” He suggested to the Sandinistas that representative elections were their “best defense against any possible US intervention” and perhaps the only way to head off a civil war into which Costa Rica and Honduras were already being drawn. The Contadora group was then negotiating an agreement to limit arms and troop levels in Central America as well as military installations and exercises, foreign bases and advisors, and support for insurgents. But many in Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador regarded an effective political opposition in Nicaragua as a guarantee of their own security. They were unlikely to sign the Contadora agreement without such a safeguard. Thus Betancur told me he was prepared not only to mediate but to be “blunt with the FSLN” and to urge Cruz “to be flexible.”

In early September, along with Betancur and the “Latin” members of the Socialist International (including Spain and Portugal), a number of prominent democrats including House Majority Leader Jim Wright, Senator Edward Kennedy, Representative Michael Barnes and House Deputy Whip William Alexander telephoned Sandinista leaders urging them to make a deal that would bring Cruz into the elections. In mid-September the Sandinistas agreed to reopen the candidate registration period, void the outlawing of the CDN political parties, and allow the CDN more time on the radio and television. Now the main sticking point was the CDN’s request to postpone the elections. The CDN argued that the remaining six weeks before the elections was insufficient for them to mount a national campaign. At a minimum the CDN wanted Cruz to appear one Sunday in the capital of each of Nicaragua’s sixteen departments, and some are in remote regions.

On Wednesday, September 19, President Betancur telephoned Cruz to tell him that the Sandinista candidate for vice-president, Sergio Ramírez, had promised postponement of the election. Cruz replied that this was good news; the bad news, he told Betancur, was that after a small indoor meeting in León he and other CDN leaders had just been attacked physically by two thousand turbas. They had hit Cruz with a stone, spat on him, and pulled his hair. Later that same week Daniel Ortega said: “We are not ashamed to be turbas, because to be part of the turba is to be part of the people.” The literature distributed by the government to election observers portrayed the attacks as a “spontaneous popular repudiation” of Cruz’s candidacy. Residents of Masaya told me, however, that a subsequent attack on a Cruz meeting in that city was carried out by outsiders trucked in by the government.

Like Betancur, Brent Budowsky, Representative Alexander’s legislative aide, also received word that the elections would be postponed. However, on September 21, Comandante Tomás Borge, a leader of the radical faction, returned from a three-week visit to several Sovietbloc countries. At the airport he declared that “it would be wrong to postpone the elections.” Borge went directly to a meeting of the Sandinista National Directorate in which, according to rumors circulating in Managua, a harsh dispute erupted between radicals and moderates. The directorate announced they would not postpone the elections but would sign a draft of the Contadora treaty instead.

The Reagan administration quickly dismissed the signing as “hypocritical,” thus managing to appear hypocritical itself, since it claimed to be supporting the efforts of the Contadora group. However, some Contadora leaders—as well as some Democrats in Congress—were also wary. They noticed that the Sandinistas’ signing of the draft was conditioned on its not being amended by other Central American countries, and that, in any event, it could not go into effect before November 15, that is, after the elections. Thus the Nicaraguan elections would not be bound by the Contadora treaty’s requirement of “impartial elections” to include “all representative currents of opinion.” In simultaneously signing the draft and postponing the elections, the Sandinistas again appeared to be trying to fend off pressures for internal democracy with clever public relations.

During the next week, between September 24 and 28, Sandinista officials attempted to convince congressional Democrats that Cruz was to blame for the breakdown in negotiations. Congress was about to reconsider aid to the contras, and the Sandinistas wanted to encourage opposition. At this point the CDN blundered again, proposing that the elections be postponed until February 24. The Sandinistas immediately claimed that this was evidence of the CDN’s bad faith. When Budowsky asked Cruz about this, Cruz told him that the February date was open to negotiation and that mid-January would be acceptable. Budowsky then told this to the Sandinista authorities. Nonetheless, Budowsky later recalled to me, “the Sandinistas spent the next five or six days telling everybody that February 24 was Cruz’s answer, and that it was non-negotiable. I began to question the good faith of the Sandinistas.”

On September 30, members of the Socialist International met in Rio de Janeiro. The leaders of the southern or Latin wing, including the Socialist International’s vice-president Carlos Andrés Perez of Venezuela, President Mário Soares of Portugal, and Elena Flores of the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ party, arranged a meeting between Bayardo Arce and Cruz and other members of the CDN. President Betancur was in close touch by telephone.

After four long sessions, an agreement in principle was reached on October 2. The Sandinistas made a key concession—they would postpone the election if Cruz yielded to several of their demands. Cruz agreed to ask the insurgents to declare a cease-fire and to surrender their arms to international authorities. The Sandinistas knew this would put the CDN in a difficult position. By interceding with the contras, the CDN could be portrayed as linked to them. Moreover, Cruz also agreed that if the contras did not lay down their arms, the elections would take place November 4 as scheduled.

Cruz had not come to Rio expecting to negotiate. Since he was not authorized to do so, he told me, he had to consult by telephone with his colleagues in Managua. Daniel Ortega, then touring the US to publicize his candidacy, told several newspaper editors that the Sandinistas had tapped the opposition’s phones and were aware that the CDN right wing was reluctant to accept the Rio conditions. By the same means, the Sandinistas also learned that officials in the CIA were urging the rightists in the CDN to torpedo the Rio agreements.

Bayardo Arce seemed startled when Cruz accepted the demands. A member of the Socialist International who was present at the meeting told me, “On Tuesday, October 2 at 5:00 PM everything appeared to be settled. Suddenly at 5:40 Arce got up and walked out.” Arce announced to a press conference that Cruz’s request to return to Managua to get the CDN’s agreement was unacceptable. Some European socialists at Rio found Arce’s attitude inexplicable: “If,” one of them told me, “Cruz is unable to get the CDN to sign on, why not let him return and try? If he failed, the Sandinistas would be vindicated. Do the Sandinistas fear the CDN?” In fact, when Cruz returned to Managua he did obtain, after one stormy meeting, the CDN’s approval.

If the Sandinistas feared Cruz, their fear was not of losing the election—they controlled the electoral process too tightly—but of “two, three, many Chinandegas”: a wave of support that could elude Sandinista control and reveal the erosion of the FSLN’s popular backing. By tying Cruz’s hands in Rio, the hardliners in the Reagan administration, working through its allies in the CDN, provided the Sandinistas a convenient way out of the impasse.

Arce’s walkout caused considerable consternation among the members of the Socialist International. This led Willy Brandt, the Socialist International president, to ask both parties to return to the negotiations, and he offered to travel to Nicaragua to “mediate” the conversations.

There was consternation in Washington as well. Budowsky told me, “The Sandinistas wouldn’t accept their own offer as soon as it seemed that Cruz’s people would. We are talking about stopping a war, about a democratic election, about the Contadora process, about the future of a country. All this was not worth a three-day wait?”

The next week Congress was to vote on covert action. A number of Democrats decided against pushing for a complete cutoff of funds to the contras in order to maintain pressure on the Sandinistas to negotiate. But when Congress voted to suspend covert action, with renewal subject to approval both by the House and the Senate, the Sandinistas were cheered, and their position continued to harden.

Betancur told me that he still hoped that “we could work out something” at the inauguration of the new Panamanian president on October 11. Cruz waited with Socialist International leaders and President Betancur to meet with Daniel Ortega in Panama, but Ortega never arrived; he sent instead the FSLN candidate for vice-president, Sergio Ramírez, who told SI officials that Brandt should not “meddle in our internal affairs.” When he got to Managua Brandt made no effort to mediate at all. He pronounced the elections “a positive step” and left.

While international attention was concentrated on the duel between Cruz and the Sandinistas, the six small registered opposition parties mounted vituperative campaigns. Three of those parties are Marxist-Leninist, the most important being the Nicaraguan Socialist party (PSN), which formerly had open support from the Soviet Union. The Popular Social Christian party and the Conservative Democratic party were originally pro-FSLN factions, but many of their activists became estranged from the Sandinistas because of harassment during the campaign. The Independent Liberal party (PLI), which included a pro-FSLN faction, had a larger following. The PLI was led by Virgilio Godoy, the former labor minister who quit the government in April 1984. When his party registered for the elections it announced that it would withdraw if the Sandinistas did not keep their promises to restore the rights of freedom of movement and expression.

After the attacks on Cruz’s indoor meetings in September were reported in the international press, the turbas were reined in. Nonetheless, the registered opposition parties continued to complain that party activists were being harassed and jailed, and that the Sandinistas were not keeping their promises. They charged that the FSLN was using state resources and the CDS (which controlled not only food rations but travel visas and eligibility for public housing and employment) for its campaign and that the electoral council was not providing the opposition with their share of internationally donated campaign supplies (paper, ink, paint, etc.) They also claimed that legislation lowering the voting age to sixteen, combined with Sandinista control of the army and militias, provided the FSLN with a captive voting bloc.8

Nonetheless, the Sandinistas allowed these parties to run campaigns denouncing Sandinista abuses and corruption. They deplored the numerous former Somocistas in the leadership of the CDS, and named a good many of them. They claimed that Sandinista mismanagement of the economy had turned Nicaragua, in Godoy’s words, into “the country of no hay” (“there isn’t any”). Opposition candidates denounced the draft for “obligating Nicaraguan youth to fight for a party, not for their country.” Some charged that the Sandinistas were reproducing “Somoza-style elections” in which the opposition could make noise but had no chance of winning.

On October 21, by a four-to-one majority, Godoy’s PLI voted to pull out of the elections for “lack of minimum conditions.” Godoy told me that party campaign workers had been harassed and arrested and that the Sandinistas failed to fulfill their promise of “freedom of the press, of movement and assembly, and [honoring] the rights of habeas corpus and injunction.” But La Prensa was stopped from publishing news of PLI’s withdrawal. Godoy told me later that though the PLI suspended all publicity, “suddenly there were more PLI advertisements than ever before” in the progovernment press, radio, and TV. The Supreme Election Council upheld the PLI’s minority, saying it was too late to reprint the ballots. Godoy then announced he was participating “under duress.”

The elections at this point presented an odd spectacle: one opposition candidate, Cruz, couldn’t get in, and another, Godoy, couldn’t get out. But the Reagan administration’s ineptness succeeded in obscuring what was actually happening. Two days before the PLI voted to withdraw, the American ambassador to Nicaragua, Harry E. Bergold, following State Department orders, paid a visit to Godoy to restate the US position that the elections were not representative. Bergold, a senior US diplomat told me, felt the State Department’s instructions were unwise. Godoy is well known in Nicaragua as a radical critic of the US, and the ambassador’s visit did much to help the Sandinistas disparage his reputation. Once again Washington and Managua seemed, in effect, to be working hand in hand.

On October 28, the Democratic Conservatives were also on the verge of voting to withdraw. Several dozen young Sandinistas broke up the party’s convention. Shortly thereafter the other non-Marxist opposition party, the Popular Social Christians, voted to participate only “provisionally,” proposing new elections “within a year.” Only the Marxist-Leninist parties took part in the elections unconditionally, and one of them, as we shall see, had serious reservations.

The banning of Cruz, the coercion of the registered opposition, press censorship, attacks by turbas—all these produced an unfavorable impression overseas. Colombia’s President Betancur told me he had shown his “disappointment” by declining to send official government observers. Indeed, none of the Contadora countries sent official observers. Nor did any of the Europeans, except for the Dutch.


What happened on Sunday, November 4? Or which account is one to believe? A visiting group of American academics sponsored by the Latin American Studies Association (LASA)—opposed to Reagan and generally sympathetic to the Sandinistas—found the elections an “impressive beginning.” Whatever the FSLN’s “abuses of incumbency,” they “did not cast doubt on the validity of the electoral process.” The same general view was taken by Lord Chitnis, a British Liberal, who wrote his own report. This was not the impression of the Dutch official observers or of most US reporters who were there; nor was it my own.

In the Los Angeles Times Dan Williams reported widespread rumors “that people who did not vote would be black-listed for government jobs, passports and other benefits.” Julia Preston of The Boston Globe wrote that some Nicaraguans, “in defensive whispers,” told of “fears and aggravations for those who didn’t want to vote.” The Dutch observer team “repeatedly heard people remark that they did not want to vote but feared that to abstain would be interpreted by the CDS as support for the counter-revolutionaries.”9

I heard similar stories. Members of artisan cooperatives in Masaya and Diriamba told me that they felt obliged to vote because the government controlled the distribution of leather and other supplies they badly needed. Adolfo Evertsz, the candidate for vice-president of the Marxist-Leninist Nicaraguan Socialist party, told me that the Sandinistas had “prepared a campaign to confuse and frighten people…. The poor were convinced that if they did not vote they would have problems with their ration cards and jobs.” In a highly publicized speech before a huge rally closing the campaign, Daniel Ortega warned: “The only ones who will not vote would be the enemies of Nicaragua, the traitors, the turncoats, and will expose themselves to the fury of the people at the moment of [US] intervention.”

The LASA report claims that on election day “voter turnout was heavy.” Julia Preston of The Boston Globe, one of the most experienced American reporters in Central America, reported that “in some key cities, lines had dwindled to nothing by 10:00 AM.” The greatest display of enthusiasm I saw was at the Hotel Intercontinental, where “international observers” boarded government buses to visit polling places. According to the official Dutch report:

A certain confusion arose because of the presence of official and not-so-official observers, i.e., private individuals and groupings who had been invited by the Nicaraguan Government but could not be regarded as representatives of foreign governments or parliaments…. Some, who acted more in the guise of performers than observers, were prepared as soon as they were off the aeroplane steps to make all kinds of statements about the nature and the exemplary functioning of the Nicaraguan elections, which could give rise to some embarrassing situations for the official observers.

In the eleven voting places I visited in Masaya, Monimbo, and Managua, the turnout averaged 40 percent. Voting appears to have been lighter in outlying districts. In small rural villages, residents later told me that between 20 and 35 percent had voted. A Socialist party politician told me that a concerned Soviet diplomat summoned a party leader to the embassy residency Sunday afternoon to ask why so many Managua polling places were desolate by 3:00 PM. In the late afternoon there was a small flurry of voting activity after Sandinista activists made house-to-house visits in many neighborhoods.

After nine days the official results were announced: nearly 1.1 million Nicaraguans had voted, a turnout of 75 percent, with 67 percent voting for Daniel Ortega and 64 percent for Sandinista National Assembly candidates. Sandinista officials, who had earlier publicly anticipated a 90 percent turnout, predicted 80 percent just before the elections. At that time, a Sandinista National Assembly candidate had added that if the Sandinistas did not win 80 percent of the turnout “we will have to reconsider our methods and the quality of our party members.”

By their own count the Sandinistas received only 47 percent of the registered votes—against a majority consisting of those who abstained, annulled their ballots, or voted for the opposition. The FSLN, in my view, still has support among public employees, peasants who have benefited from the agrarian reform, and young activists. But Rafael Solis, the FSLN party official in charge of the elections, frankly acknowledged that “the results show that we have problems in some areas. A significant number of Nicaraguans obviously do not understand or support what we are doing.”

There is no way of determining whether the official vote count was accurate. Manipulation of election results is traditional in Central America and certainly few Nicaraguans I talked to took the results literally. Those international observers who did not depart the day after the voting eagerly awaited disclosures of partial and final results. Like the numerous foreign observers in El Salvador’s 1982 elections, they assumed they were attending a protracted “election-night vigil” in a tropical setting. Meanwhile Nicaraguan journalists, academics, and opposition leaders described the waiting period in terms more reminiscent of a smoke-filled room at a US party convention.

Leaders of two registered opposition parties (the PLI and the PSN) told me that the opposition parties had participated in a preelection agreement with the FSLN to allocate the votes. Godoy claimed that the PLI’s portion would be reduced as “punishment” for seeking to withdraw from the elections. Several well-placed Nicaraguans told me that the Sandinistas’ own factional fight affected the results that were announced. Radical Sandinistas, who had opposed Ortega’s nomination, wanted his vote kept low so as to prevent his emerging as the Sandinistas’ undisputed leader. The opposition party leaders I spoke to said the results would award the registered parties with enough votes to maintain themselves as a visible opposition but not enough to challenge the FSLN in the National Assembly. The elections, they argued, were held almost exclusively for international consumption, and the results would have to establish that Nicaragua was not “an Eastern European dictatorship,” thus ensuring a continued flow of international assistance. The announced turnout, they predicted, would be high enough to declare victory over those who had illegally advocated abstention but not so high as to seem implausible in view of the visibly disappointing actual turnout.

No one produced documentary evidence of a preelectoral pact or of tampering with the ballots; nor have they done so during the last year. Opposition poll watchers were present at fewer than 20 percent of the polling sites. However, Jaime Chamorro, the new editor of La Prensa, compiled a statistical analysis of the partial and complete official registration and election figures. (He was allowed to publish only a part of it.) He noted numerous discrepancies and concluded that the FSLN padded the registration count by 400,000. These votes, he argued, were later added to the FSLN election totals.10


In the tradition of Somoza’s demonstration elections, the November election results preserved the appearance of pluralism but ensured the Sandinistas effective control over the National Assembly. They did not hesitate to use it to consolidate their power and to cripple the opposition still further. What has happened since the elections has offered little encouragement for Willy Brandt’s view that the elections were a “step forward.” Shortly after the elections, prominent Church officials and opposition political, labor, and business leaders were prevented from traveling outside the country. Censorship of La Prensa increased dramatically (nearly 50 percent of its articles were soon being censored). La Prensa’s former editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, Jr. went into exile in Costa Rica. A Sandinista government source acknowledged to The Washington Post (December 3, 1984) that an “intimidation campaign” was under way. The Post also reported that two provincial officials of the Social Christian party were arrested shortly after the election, one charged with collaborating with the rebels. Later a prominent human rights lawyer, Roger Guevara Mena, was jailed without charges and kept incommunicado for nine days, but the authorities usually picked for their reprisals inconspicuous mid-level opposition activists from provincial towns like Matagalpa and Chinandega.

Before the elections the Sandinistas agreed to a “national dialogue” among all political parties to take place after the elections. After the elections, the FSLN refused to hold any such meeting. In early January all Nicaraguan political parties—with the exception of the FSLN and the tiny ultraleft MAP (ML) but including the Nicaraguan Socialist and Communist parties as well as the Coordinadora—signed a proposal to “renew the national dialogue.” The November 4 elections, the proposal said, had not solved the country’s main political problems; the “national economic crisis” had sharpened with mounting inflation; “workers’ salaries have plummeted and poverty and indigence prevails among the masses.” Only a renewed national dialogue could “restore peace, tranquility, and stability.”

The Sandinistas asserted that discussion of such issues could occur only in the National Assembly. But suspicions of the opposition parties that the Assembly would mechanically endorse Sandinista policy were soon confirmed. In February, against the vigorous objections of the parliamentary opposition, the Sandinistas and minority pro-FSLN factions in other parties pushed through legislation that granted Ortega broad emergency powers, curtailed discussion of the budget, prohibited either discussion or reduction of defense spending by the Assembly, and virtually denied the minority parties their right to propose legislation. Socialist deputy Luis Sanchez said the legislation “violates the main principles of the revolution” and “brings back ugly memories” of Somoza’s rule.

When some of the parliamentary opposition proved refractory, the Sandinistas on March 7 imposed rules stipulating that all proposals, including the new constitution, must be approved by a 60 percent majority. That meant that even if the entire opposition walked out, the Sandinista delegation could continue to run the legislature and approve a constitution. A commission was formed to draft the constitution. It was composed of FSLN delegates along with docile members of the opposition, some of whom, opposition-party sources have claimed to me, are on the government dole. The president of the Social Christian party, Augustin Jarquin, said that the Sandinistas’ evident intentions to dictate the constitution furnished “further proof that the FSLN does not intend to allow political pluralism.” Other opposition leaders said the Sandinistas were fulfilling Bayardo Arce’s vow to draft “a Red constitution.”

On March 21 the National Assembly approved an internal statute granting broad powers to the executive. Virgilio Godoy said the rules meant that “now the National Assembly has more members but less power” than the defunct Sandinista-dominated Council of State. According to The New York Times (May 10), “opposition deputies…said they no longer believed [the Assembly] could serve as a forum for serious debate.” Under present rules all motions must be submitted weeks in advance to Sandinista comandante Carlos Nunez, who can reject any proposal he considers “notoriously out of place.” According to the Times report, “up to now nearly every bill has been approved in the exact form in which it was proposed by the Sandinistas.” Another blow against pluralism was struck on March 6 when the Supreme Court upheld the government’s decision to deny legal status to the traditional anti-Somoza Conservative party. In May the PLI newspaper announced that it was ceasing publication because of “excess censorship.” Finally, on October 15, Daniel Ortega announced the suspension of virtually all civil liberties, including the rights to assemble, to move about the country, to strike, and to publicly criticize the government.

Though the Sandinistas apparently had urged other countries to send highranking delegations to Daniel Ortega’s inauguration on January 15, in contrast to recent inaugurations in Panama, Uruguay, and Brazil, Western Europeans sent minor officials. No Contadora or other Latin American president attended nor did other Central American countries send delegations. Fidel Castro dominated the ceremonies. His presence was made particularly conspicuous by the absence of the other leading patron of the revolution, former Venezuelan president and Socialist International leader Carlos Andrés Perez. Declining an invitation to the inauguration, Perez wrote Ortega: “Those of us who believe we have done so much for the Sandinista revolution feel deceived because sufficient guarantees were not provided to assure the participation of all political forces.”

There is bitter retribution for US policy in the Sandinista elections. They were no worse but no better than those we have sponsored for half a century in Central America. For decades we backed El Salvador’s military regime and applauded “elections” in which the military party, the Party of National Conciliation, like the FSLN, controlled the state apparatus, the army, the police, and the election council, and routinely received the seats necessary to dominate the National Assembly.

The elections were a partial success for the Sandinistas. The exclusion of Cruz and the electoral abuses described in the American press sharply diminished remaining Sandinista sympathies in the US Congress, but the cautiously favorable report of the official observer of the Socialist International, Thorvold Stoltenberg of Norway, seemed to satisfy some of its members, especially those from West Germany, France, and the Scandinavian and Low Countries.11 When I expressed my own reservations to a leading member of the Socialist International who had just publicly endorsed the Nicaraguan elections, he replied: “But we had to endorse them. Reagan endorsed the Salvadoran elections.”

The elections left much bitterness among the Nicaraguan people—not only toward the Sandinistas but toward the opposition as well. Many Nicaraguans who hoped the elections would help to resolve the national crisis, or at least to expose the Sandinistas’ failings, criticized the opposition forces for not having participated in the campaign, even under unfavorable conditions, and for their disunity and indecisiveness. They felt Cruz had let himself be manipulated by the right wing of the Coordinadora instead of capitalizing on the moral authority he gained from the rallies in Chinandega and elsewhere. Had he persisted, he might have posed a strong challenge to the regime. The Cruz campaign, too often conducted through behind-the-scenes negotiations rather than through direct appeal to the Nicaraguan people, left the opposition without a coherent political structure.

After the elections the dissident Nicaraguans withdrew what confidence they had from the Coordinadora. The undisputed political leader of the opposition has become Miguel Obando y Bravo, the archbishop of Managua who was made a cardinal last spring. When he returned from Rome in June he was greeted by huge crowds, and many thousands have come to hear him as he has held masses throughout the country. He has implicitly criticized the regime by calling for a “national dialogue” and by asserting that the Nicaraguan people “want neither capitalism nor communism.” (The popular responses to Cardinal Obando—along with recent protests organized by Christian Democrat, Socialist, and Communist unions against bonus cuts—were apparently the main reason for the regime’s emergency decree of October 15.) During the year following the elections, thousands of Nicaraguans left the country, some to join the ranks of the rebels, whose ranks quickly grew. In a later article I shall examine the rebels and their entanglement with US politics.

This is the first of three articles on Nicaragua.