The Nicaraguan Tangle

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…

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