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 show much tolerance in practice. In Nicaragua the revolution is almost nine years old, yet, in spite of periods of repression during which thousands have been jailed, there now exist a freewheeling newspaper, genuine opposition parties, and independent trade unions. Can such contradictory tendencies coexist? The question has taken on a special urgency in the wake of the Arias accord, which calls for democratization inside Nicaragua. What can we expect from the Sandinistas?


I arrived in Managua in mid-February on the same day Jimmy Swaggart did. Swaggart (his blasphemous secret not yet revealed) had brought his Pentecostal road show to Nicaragua for three days. The Inter-Continental Hotel was crowded with well-groomed young men from the Bible Belt murmuring “Amen” and “Praise the Lord.” A technical crew took over the Plaza of the Revolution and erected a huge stage, a soaring TV platform, and a space-age sound system the likes of which Nicaragua had never before seen. The rallies brought out Nicaraguan evangelicals by the tens of thousands; their gaze fixed on Swaggart as he sang, quaked, and glided across the stage. He was shadowed by a balding Costa Rican translator, who uncannily reproduced every twitch and wail. The message was straightforward. “Only Jesus Christ can stop the killing!” Swaggart bellowed. “Only Jesus Christ can stop the war! Only Jesus Christ can stop the pain!”

What was this vociferous anti-Communist doing in the lap of Latin revolution? Swaggart’s presence attested to the Sandinistas’ political acumen. A visit to Nicaragua by so powerful a US preacher could only help them with the American religious right. In the end, Swaggart obliged. At one of his rallies, he recounted how, a year earlier, he had been flying over Nicaragua when the Lord told him of His affection for Daniel Ortega. “God said to me, ‘I love that man,”‘ Swaggart declared, his silky voice thickening. “‘Pray for him, pray for him.”‘ Thirty thousand people raised their arms skyward, praying for their president.


But there was a deeper political significance to Swaggart’s visit. For the first time since coming to power, the Sandinistas had allowed an evangelical preacher to come to Nicaragua. A year earlier, Billy Graham had requested permission to visit, but the government had turned him down. The Sandinistas’ change of heart clearly reflected the new political openness that has developed in Nicaragua since the signing of the Esquipulas peace accords last August.

There were other such signs. During my stay construction workers, mechanics, and waiters all walked off their jobs to protest the government’s new austerity measures. The strikes reflected the strength of popular dissatisfaction, but they also suggested that workers were being given a new latitude. The government dissolved its Popular Anti-Somoza Tribunals, a form of kangaroo court that had summarily condemned suspected contra collaborators to long prison terms. The Sandinistas also lifted the nearly six-year-old state of emergency, making it harder for the state to detain people without trial. As a result, ordinary Nicaraguans were speaking out with uncommon boldness.

That outspokenness was nowhere more apparent than in the press and on the radio. The newly unmuzzled radio stations complained loudly about the draft and the regime’s neglect of human rights; talk shows were inundated with callers complaining about the sorry state of the economy. La Prensa, meanwhile, was attacking the Sandinistas with unrelenting ferocity: on some days its entire front page was devoted to attacks on the government. The two pro-Sandinista papers, Barricada and El Nuevo Diario, launched their own campaign against La Prensa, running front-page stories about how the paper had misquoted people or otherwise gotten its facts wrong. To borrow from Clausewitz, journalism in Nicaragua today is war by other means.

Clearly, then, the Arias plan had brought some genuine gains for the opposition. But there were other signs as well. The government had declared war on currency speculation and mobilized its followers to enforce it. Brigades of militant Sandinistas descended on the marketplaces, harassing vendors who charged too much for their goods. Road-blocks were set up to prevent unlicensed middlemen from bringing illegal produce to town. Merchants had their goods confiscated and hundreds of vehicles were seized.

Meanwhile, the turbas were again called into action. These mobs of zealous youths, workers, and army veterans had been quiet in recent years, but with the lifting of the state of emergency and the resumption of opposition meetings, the turbas had reemerged, setting upon demonstrators with threats, sticks, and stones. For instance, days after the emergency ended, the Democratic Coordinating Group—a conservative coalition of six opposition parties, two trade unions, and a business association—tested the new climate by holding an indoor meeting in Managua; the gathering was broken up by a gang of rock-throwing Sandinista militants.

The most serious clashes occurred over the draft. Many Nicaraguans expected that, after the signing of the Arias accords, the government would ease its harsh recruitment procedures. Instead, the Sandinistas actually tightened enforcement, sending out military patrols to hunt down draft evaders. On February 8, women in the Masaya barrio of Monimbó took to the streets to ward off government recruiters looking for their sons. The protest quickly grew into a violent anti-draft protest, with demonstrators stoning police officers and burning their vehicles. Police in riot gear then moved in, and more than a dozen people were arrested.1

The protest in Masaya was especially galling for the Sandinistas, for it was there, not quite twenty miles from Managua, that the insurrection against Somoza got its start. To show that the revolutionary embers still burned, the front announced that it would hold its own rally in Masaya to honor 1,300 young volunteers for the Sandinista army.

Several thousand Sandinista supporters showed up. As usually happens in Nicaragua, the event was late in getting started, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind, since there was loud disco music and plenty of vendors. Suddenly a military band struck up, and hundreds of enthusiastic teen-agers poured into the square. These cachorros (lion cubs), as the young volunteers are known, proudly marched past the cheering Masayans, stopping in front of the speakers’ platform, where a dozen Sandinista notables stood applauding.

The featured speaker was Bayardo Arce, one of the nine comandantes who sit on the FSLN’s National Directorate. Arce is known for his bellicose oratory, and he was in good form on this occasion. For half an hour he spoke under the glaring sun, lashing out at all those who dared to challenge the government. “This meeting is a mortal blow to the North American project, which constitutes the hope of the impudent politicians of the right and pseudo-left,” he bellowed. The regiments of the revolution were being reinforced in order to “annihilate once and for all the mercenary forces of the Reagan administration.” Arce had especially tough words for La Prensa, accusing it of complicity in the massacre of women and children. As for the members of the opposition, he dismissed them as “agents of the US Embassy.”


I stood only twenty-five feet from where Arce was speaking, but I had trouble hearing him in the loud hum of people around me. In Nicaragua, even the most solemn events have an air of informality, and now, as Arce thundered on, women peddled pink candy, men sold watermelon, girls offered crackers, and boys hawked Barricada. Then, after the customary sign-off—Patria libre o morir!—the rally fell into complete disorder. The crowd surged into a nearby street, where a line of East German military trucks stood ready to transport the cachorros to training camp. As the volunteers clambered aboard, their families pressed close, offering final words of farewell. The teen-agers lit up cigarettes, manfully trying to ignore the tears of mothers and girlfriends. Finally, the trucks roared to a start and, horns blaring, raced through the streets of Masaya, the young soldiers raising their fists into the air as they went off to war.

So ended a typical Sandinista rally—implacable words amid considerable chaos.


During my stay in Nicaragua, I was repeatedly referred to a book entitled, simply, Sandinistas. It consists of lengthy interviews with three key members of the National Directorate—Bayardo Arce, Humberto Ortega, and Jaime Wheelock. The book, I was told, provides a revealing glimpse into the mind of the Sandinistas. When I finally managed to get a copy, it proved to be a disappointment. Its 258 pages abound in standard leftist phrases like “political hegemony,” “imperialist aggression,” “popular power,” “democratic centralism,” and “national bourgeoisie.” When Jaime Wheelock is asked to name the most powerful man in Nicaragua, he replies, “The man with the most power here is the man of the people, the poor, the peasant without land, the worker—it is for them that the revolution has been made.” Humberto Ortega, asked to define Sandinista ideology, has this to say:

Our ideology is summed up in Sandinismo, taking Sandinismo as an historic element, guided by a scientific revolutionary doctrine that is liable to be more revolutionary in the future, and with a political problematic that currently, at the Latin American level, is that of national liberation.2

One encounters a lot of schoolbook Marxism-Leninism in Nicaragua. It seems so out of place in this languid land of volcanoes, mangoes, and poets. Where does it come from? Certainly not from Augusto César Sandino. In the late 1920s, Augustín Farabundo Martí, the Salvadoran Communist leader, tried to win Sandino over to the Comintern’s program. But the Nicaraguan general found Martí far too rigid for his taste and quickly rejected his overtures. Sandino was interested in one goal above all others—expelling the Americans from his homeland. When the marines finally left, in 1934, Sandino agreed to lay down his arms and sign a pact with the Nicaraguan president—a fateful move, for he was immediately gunned down by Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard.

Sandino was certainly a revolutionary—he was passionate about the lot of Nicaragua’s peasants—but he was far too eclectic to take up with any particular ideology. Sandino professed a chaotic mixture of contending notions, some of them quite bizarre. He was attracted at one time or another to Freemasonry, theosophy, Zoroastrianism, the cabala, and something called the Magnetic-Spiritual School of the Universal Commune. In his Light and Truth Manifesto, he identified the Communist prediction of world revolution with the Final Judgment of the Bible. Sandino was especially taken with anarcho-syndicalism, an apocalyptic school of thought that endorsed violent street action as a means of over-throwing the existing social order and transforming society.3 The Sandinistas have appropriated Sandino’s name but little of his philosophy.

The Sandinistas have not borrowed a great deal from Eastern bloc doctrines either. While the Soviets and East Europeans have provided the Sandinistas with much aid they have less in common ideologically with the FSLN than with the Socialist Party of Nicaragua (PSN), an orthodox Moscow-line group that still refuses to acknowledge that the revolution has taken place—the objective conditions, it believes, aren’t yet ripe. To Soviet bloc officials, the Sandinistas seem romantic adventurers with little real understanding of Marxist theory. Of the nine comandantes on the National Directorate, only one—Jaime Wheelock—has any serious grounding in Marxist economics. Another, Henry Ruiz, was kicked out of Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow for insubordination; he advocated armed struggle in Latin America when the Soviets were counseling caution. (It should be added that Ruiz has maintained close ties with the Soviets.) The East Europeans have their own term for the Sandinista approach. “Socialism in the tropics,” they call it, connoting a frenetic, seat-of-the-pants brand of Marxism.

The Sandinistas, meanwhile, have their own problems with the East. Every year hundreds of Nicaragua’s best students depart for courses in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, mostly to study technical subjects—medicine, engineering, the sciences. As part of the curriculum, however, they also take courses in politics and economics. After four or five years of such study, the Nicaraguans can talk knowingly about the law of surplus value, rural collectivization, and other alien concepts. The students get so loaded down that, on their return, they must enter ideological “detox” units—special courses designed to reintroduce them to the realities of life in Nicaragua.

I stumbled on a more likely source of Sandinista ideology one Saturday afternoon while accompanying two members of the Sandinista youth organization to a state farm in northern Nicaragua. A new school building there had been defaced, and the Sandinista teen-agers went to encourage the local children to take better care of it. On the ride back I asked the youths about the historical figures they most admired. Marx? “I’m afraid we haven’t read him,” one of them replied. Lenin? “We haven’t read him either.” Fidel? A shake of the head. Che? “Oh, yes,” they said, a dreamy look in their eyes.

Ernesto “Che” Guevara appears everywhere in Nicaragua—in speeches, on bookshelves, on the walls of buildings. Before the revolution the FSLN oath began, “With my heart and thoughts focused on the immortal patriotic examples of Augusto César Sandino and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara….” Judging by the number of T-shirts I saw bearing his likeness, I’d say that Che has an appeal in Nicaragua comparable to that of Michael Jackson in the United States. After Sandino, in fact, he is the most revered figure in Nicaragua.

It’s curious that the Sandinistas, who assert their nationalism at every turn, would allow a foreigner into their revolutionary pantheon. He got there largely through the auspices of Carlos Fonseca (1936–1976). One of the three founding fathers of the FSLN, Fonseca is the only original ideologist that the front has produced. In the late 1950s, as Nicaragua’s national liberation movement took shape, Fonseca corrected Sandino’s writings and condensed them into a handy, concise manual that the Sandinistas use to this day. In the process, he pared away Sandino’s spiritualism and anarchism, extracting from his thought its radical, nationalist core. He then fused it with Marxism.

But it was a particular form of Marxism. Like most young Latin American revolutionaries at the time, Fonseca was much taken with the Cuban revolution, particularly with the philosophy of Che. In contrast to traditional Marxists, who believe in the determining influence of material conditions, Guevara preached a philosophy of action. “It’s not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist,” he wrote. “The insurrection can create them.” While orthodox Marxists maintained that theoretical understanding must precede action, Che stressed practice over theory. To the fledgling FSLN—a band of students confronting a powerful dictator—Che’s voluntarism had obvious appeal.

Guevara’s greatest contribution to Sandinismo, however, has been his concept of the “new man” who transcends personal ambition and works to make a “contribution to the common life in which he is reflected.” Among the Sandinistas, Che is said to epitomize the central revolutionary virtues—courage, modesty, abstinence, and sacrifice. All young Sandinistas learn how Che gave up the comforts of Havana for the jungles of Bolivia, there to take on an army of vastly superior firepower. More than anything else, it is the example of Che’s life that has earned him his heroic stature in Nicaragua. All in all, Sandinismo is less a fusion of Sandino and Marx than of Sandino and Guevara.

Che’s influence can be seen most clearly in the way the FSLN regards itself as a vanguard party. Lenin conceived of the vanguard as a means of hastening revolution in an economically backward country like Russia, where the working class had not yet developed a consciousness of its own. The vanguard, consisting of the most politically advanced elements in society, can articulate the interests of the masses and provide them direction. The idea has obvious appeal for third world Marxists, and it has caught on with revolutionaries from China and Vietnam to Cuba, Angola, and Nicaragua.

The FSLN, Tomás Borge has said, “is the vanguard of the workers and peasants, and as such it is the fundamental instrument of the revolutionary classes. The FSLN is the guide to a new society.”4 This is straightforward Leninism. But the Sandinistas have imbued it with Guevarist views of the new man. Members of the FSLN—called militantes—are expected to follow a strict code of conduct. They must be model family members. They must refrain from using drugs and drink alcohol only in moderation. They must display modesty, patience, and sincerity at all times. Above all, militantes must work hard. During the day, they must set an example at the workplace. At night, they must attend study groups and block meetings. On weekends, they must travel into the countryside to work with peasants.

To the untrained eye, the FSLN might seem huge and all-embracing. Its mass organizations—including the youth league, women’s association, labor confederation, peasant groups, and Sandinista Defense Committees—encompass up to half a million Nicaraguans. Very few of them, however, actually belong to the front, which is determined to remain small. One doesn’t apply to join the front—one is invited. In a factory with one hundred employees, perhaps two or three will belong to the party. Altogether the FSLN has only 24,000 members—fewer than 1 percent of Nicaragua’s population of three million.

“The Sandinista Front is very selective,” Sergio Ramírez, Nicaragua’s vice-president, told me. “It represents the best forces of the people—the best young people, the uncorrupted managers, the most honest sectors of the middle class.” Searching for a metaphor, he likened the front to a “monastic order” in which members “take a vow of silence, suffer great privations, make sacrifices, and take a Christian-like vow to the death—as we say, patria o muerte.”


How is the new man (and woman) doing in Nicaragua? In an effort to find out, I visited a Sandinista training school. The FSLN School for Cultural Advancement is located on the Pan American Highway, just outside the northern city of Estelí. There the party trains its cadres—those elite members selected for key political and administrative tasks. One Saturday afternoon I showed up with a companion. We had no appointment, but I had a letter of introduction from the government press office, and, after a little cajoling, we were welcomed in.

Our guide, one of the school’s administrators, was a pleasant young woman who seemed not at all put out by the sudden appearance of two Americans. As we walked about the grounds, I had the distinct impression of being in summer camp. The school, a former country club, was housed in a cluster of well-scrubbed buildings with bright orange roofs. Trees and flower bushes lined the walkways. There were dormitories (three bunks to a room), airy classrooms, a dining hall—even a large swimming pool (empty owing to water shortages). The only jarring note came from the rifles that everyone was carrying; the contras were very active in the area.

The school had about one hundred students, ranging in age up to forty. Many were peasants who had worked their way into the Sandinista bureaucracy—the agrarian reform ministry, the mass organizations, the social services, local party committees. They had not had much previous experience of classrooms, so the school’s curriculum ran to basics—reading, writing, arithmetic, even literacy courses. The students also received intensive instruction in Nicaraguan history, Marxist political economy, and Sandinista ideology.

This being the weekend, a group of students had taken over a patch of vacant ground and converted it into a baseball diamond, where a game was just finishing. As they came off the field—gloves in one hand, AK-47s in the other—we joined a half-dozen for a chat. We sat in rocking chairs on a tile terrace, the light slowly fading as the sun set behind the surrounding hills.

I began by asking if any of them read La Prensa. All of them did—“to find out the lies it tells,” as one woman put it. She was quick to add that the paper had a right to publish, “because in Nicaragua there’s freedom of expression”—the party’s current position. Could the FSLN lose an election? No, was the unanimous response. “If an election were held today,” said an intense man who worked as a customs inspector, “the FSLN would receive 85 percent of the vote. The people know that it was the front, and not the opposition parties, that led the fight against Somoza, so the immense majority still support us.” And so it went, the students generally offering stock FSLN views on the major issues of the day with no sign of any disagreements with the official line.

The students were much more interesting when they talked about their personal experiences. Like many Sandinista cadres, most of these militantes had become active in the struggle before 1979, and the stories they told were filled with dramatic incidents—bombings, arrests, armed clashes, massacres. Periodically, they mentioned the names of comrades who had fallen along the way. All in all, these militantes seemed a highly dedicated and disciplined lot, far more drawn to acting on behalf of the revolution than to theorizing about it.

Traveling through Nicaragua, I discovered that the students I talked to at the school are not exactly representative. Consider, for instance, the young dairy farmer I met in Estelí. Julio Cesar Ruiz Velásquez works part-time for a private rural organization assisting peasants in the region. During our conversation, he talked glowingly of the revolution and the changes it had brought about in the countryside. Well, I asked, was he a militante? Julio emphatically shook his head. “I’m happy to undertake my duties as a member of the community,” he told me. “But I don’t want anyone ordering me around. If you’re a militante, you’re told, ‘Do this, do that.’ A lot of discipline is required.” All in all, he said, “I’d rather spend time on my finca.”

There are many people like Julio in Nicaragua, who, though sympathetic to the front, shudder at the thought of joining it. The party’s emphasis on regimentation doesn’t fit the national character. Even in the middle of a war, Managua on weekends explodes with parties. Nicaragua is one of the most Catholic countries in the world, but its sexual habits would hardly be described as monklike. Most Nicaraguans would rather spend their nights drinking beer than discussing The State and Revolution. For those with political aspirations, the party offers an avenue of advancement; for the rest, membership promises more trouble than gain.

Discipline has proved a problem within the party itself. The vanguard ideal of Lenin the austere Bolshevik is alien to the Nicaraguan way. The front is continually having to sanction its members for various infractions—shirking official duties, refusing to carry out orders, drinking to excess, cracking up official vehicles. In some cases, militantes join the party in a burst of enthusiasm, only to fade away once the workload proves too heavy. I met one internacionalista from New Jersey, whose encounters with tardy, indolent, and impulsive militantes had left him a bundle of nerves; for a long afternoon he compulsively told bitter anecdotes about his experiences.

Sandinista recklessness is legendary. East Germany has sent Nicaragua hundreds of bulky IFA military vehicles (universally referred to as “ee-fahs”). At all hours they rumble through the streets of Managua, taking intersections and corners at breakneck speed. IFA, Managuans joke, stands for imposible frenar al tiempo—impossible to brake on time. In other countries, the trucks last an average of twelve years; in Nicaragua, they last six months. The East Germans have repeatedly exhorted the Sandinistas to exercise greater caution, with little success. “The Sandinistas know that if they drive an IFA off a cliff, they can simply get another one out of the warehouse,” a diplomat observed.

No one reveals more about the Sandinista mentality than Comandante Omar Cabezas. His Fire from the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista has sold more copies than any other book in Nicaraguan history (over 100,000 since 1982). It tells the story of Cabezas’s journey from being a freewheeling university student to fighting as a dedicated guerrilla. The central figure for him was Che Guevara: “I know and came to Sandino through Che. Because I think that in Nicaragua in order to be like Che you have to be a Sandinista. There is no other path for the revolution in Nicaragua.”

In one scene, Cabezas, sick of the mud, the hunger, and the loneliness, and burdened with a heavy sack on his back, comes close to rebelling when the thought of Che intervenes:

I kept thinking of Che, of Che’s new man, and it hit me then—the enormity of what Che meant when he talked about the new man: the man who gives more to others than the average man is able to give…. We all wanted to be like Che…. So we hoisted on our packs, slipped the straps over our shoulders, looked at each other, and said, we’ll get that son-of-a-bitch new man today if it fucking kills us. And we started climbing. By noon the film of the new man was running through my mind—to be like Che, to be like Che—and I swear to you we didn’t rest once over a distance where before we would have stopped to rest five times.

Fire from the Mountain is certainly one of the more offbeat contributions to the literature of national liberation. Here is how Cabezas describes his arrival in guerrilla boot camp:

There couldn’t have been more than twenty guerrillas in the mountains at that time. It made you want to turn around and go back. Mother-fucking son of a bitch! What is this shit? You are right at the point of saying to yourself, Holy Mother of Christ! this is the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life.

Cabezas, now thirty-seven years old, works in a warren of FSLN offices located in a Managua shopping center. When I saw him he had just completed the sequel to Fire from the Mountain. Word had already spread about one of its chapters, a steamy description of an affair with a well-known, and thinly disguised, compañera. When I mentioned the new book to Cabezas, he pulled the manuscript from his desk drawer with some swagger. “I wrote it all in just twenty days,” he told me.

As we began to talk, Cabezas bent down to unstrap a revolver from his ankle, placed the revolver on his desk, and leaned back in his chair. I asked him if it was necessary to be a Marxist in order to be a Sandinista. No, he said: “The only requirement is that one be part of the vanguard.” I asked him to explain. “Suppose you work in a textile factory,” he said. “The vanguard worker is the one who arrives earlier than the rest and leaves later. He worries about whether there’s enough material, about whether the machinery is working properly, about how to get around the embargo. If the factory has five hundred workers, he is the best.” Members of the vanguard serve as “examples,” he said, adding that the Sandinista Front “is a front of examples.”

Cabezas looked very tired. Perhaps it was his work on the new book. Or perhaps it was his troubles with the party. Until recently Cabezas had held the position of vice-minister of the interior in charge of political indoctrination. It was a key post in a powerful ministry, responsible for instilling cadres with vanguard values. Now Cabezas was working at a low-level committee office at a shopping center. During my stay in Nicaragua I repeatedly heard that the party had demoted Cabezas (which he denied). His alleged offense: spending too many late nights out on the town. (In what might represent a step toward rehabilitation, Cabezas is expected to become the new head of the Sandinista Defense Committees.)

Within every Nicaraguan new man, it seems, an old one is struggling to get out. Take the case of Sergio Ramírez. He is both Nicaragua’s vice-president and one of its best-known fiction writers. As a political essayist, Ramírez is didactic and heavy-handed, given to inert analyses of such matters as “the demise of the parallel tendencies” of Nicaraguan history. As a writer of fiction, however, Ramírez is playful and witty, full of ironic insights into his country’s imprisoned psyche. “To Jackie With All Our Heart,” for instance, tells of the pretentious preparations touched off by the rumor that Jackie Kennedy would visit Nicaragua. Ramírez may compare the FSLN to a religious order, but he recently had a story published in Playboy.

It’s not easy to reconcile these two aspects of Sandinismo—the heavy moralism, strict regimentation, and crude dogmatism, on the one hand, and the exuberant romanticism, restless idealism, and sensuality, on the other. Sofía Montenegro, a writer at Barricada and a leading Nicaraguan feminist, sums up the Sandinista duality by referring to the FSLN’s red and black flag. Traditionally, its colors are said to stand for liberty or death. Montenegro has a different explanation. “The red,” she told me, “stands for Marxism; the black, for anarchy.” The one represents Che; the other, Sandino. According to FSLN canon, the two are inseparably joined; in reality, they are forever in conflict.

In many cases Cuban ideology, whether that of Che or of Castro, wins out, as can be seen from the Sandinistas’ frequent appropriation of Cuban formulas. “When problems arise, the Sandinistas have often solved them not by reading theoretical works and coming to their own conclusions, but by copying Cuba,” says the head of a Western European development institute. “Whatever you have here that appears to be Marxist-Leninist comes from Cuba.”

The copying was especially common in the early years of the revolution, when the Sandinistas’ lack of experience, together with their idealized view of Cuba, fostered a highly dependent cast of mind. No sooner had the Sandinistas entered Managua than hundreds of Cuban advisers came streaming into the country, bearing blueprints for everything from mass communications to the military. The Sandinistas looked to Cuba in organizing Nicaragua’s education system, establishing the intelligence network, setting up mass organizations. Even in such a basic matter as the structure of government ministries, the Nicaraguans emulated the Cuban model.

Over the years, however, the Sandinistas have seemed more and more willing to set out on their own—on the whole, less from choice than from necessity. Land policy is a good example.The Sandinistas came to power with visions of creating collective farms. The agrarian reform ministry was placed in the hands of Jaime Wheelock, among the most orthodox of the nine comandantes. He had a great deal of land at his disposal, much of it from estates expropriated from somocistas. The peasants wanted the land for themselves, but Wheelock, taking his cue from Cuba, gave precedence to state farms and cooperatives. Those who complained too loudly might have their own meager plots confiscated. This, along with other dirigiste agricultural policies, naturally embittered many peasants, and when the contras came along in 1982, the disaffected campesinos provided a ready source of recruits. The government quickly realized its mistake and, reversing course, began handing out land titles by the thousand. Whereas in the early 1980s the state held 25 percent of all land, today it controls just over 10 percent.

Similarly, the government has given up some of its hopes for the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDSs). These neighborhood groups, set up in the initial months of the revolution, were modeled on Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. In addition to issuing ration cards and organizing crime patrols, the CDSs monitored the political activities of local residents. Poorly staffed and inadequately supervised, the CDSs committed so many abuses that even sympathizers turned against them. By 1986, the committees had all but ceased to exist. The front is now trying to reinvigorate them, but it is far from clear whether it will succeed.

While in Nicaragua, I got a glimpse into the Sandinista mind during the funeral of Nora Astorga, who died of cancer while serving as UN ambassador in New York. One of the FSLN’s most celebrated figures, Astorga was given a full state funeral, held in the main hall of the Casa de Gobierno, where President Ortega and other top officials have their offices. All nine members of the National Directorate showed up, as did most government ministers and the army’s top brass. The eulogy was delivered by a grim Daniel Ortega, who, in a low, sorrowful voice, praised Astorga for her dedication to the poor and to the liberty of Nicaragua.

Then, to my surprise, ten priests in brilliant white robes filed to the front of the hall. One by one they stepped forward and read brief passages from the Bible. When they had finished, one of the priests poured wine into a chalice and, holding it aloft, spoke of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. He then blessed the wafer, and many of the mourners came forward to take communion. Finally, the nine comandantes took hold of the casket, carried it out of the hall, and placed it in a hearse for transport to the cemetery.

Not long ago, the presence of priests at a state funeral would have been highly improbable. The Sandinistas’ ongoing feud with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, their harassment of Nicaragua’s bishops, their promotion of the “popular church”—all had locked the front into a state of seemingly perpetual conflict with the Church. In the last couple of years, however, the FSLN has relaxed its views toward traditional Catholicism—so much so that it could hold a traditional mass in the Casa de Gobierno for a leading government official. “If you had told me in 1980 that one day the top Sandinista leadership would come to celebrate a mass, I’d have said you must be kidding,” I was told by Xabier Gorostiaga, a prominent Nicaraguan economist and the editor of Pensamiento Propio, a leading intellectual journal.

“In any spectrum of Marxist-Leninists, the Sandinistas must be the softest,” a senior Western diplomat who recently left Nicaragua said. “It would be hard to find any young revolutionaries in the world who are less doctrinaire than the FSLN.” In the end, the Sandinistas’ pragmatism has proved their greatest strength. The FSLN has been successful precisely to the extent that it has backed off from its most heartfelt beliefs. When they cling to their ideology the Sandinistas get into trouble. And, in one central matter, they have stubbornly refused to bend.


One Friday night I attended a lavish outdoor party given by the correspondent for an American radio network. Waiters walked through the crowd, offering marinated mushrooms, tiny roast beef sandwiches, and pastry shells filled with ceviche. A musical combo from the Atlantic Coast played a mix of reggae, calypso, and funk. The guest list was diverse, including not only government bureaucrats and FSLN officials but also businessmen, a journalist from La Prensa, and several opposition party leaders. Such social mixing was a very recent phenomenon, I was told—a small dividend of the Arias peace plan.

Around midnight, as I was talking to a member of the front, she suddenly looked at her watch and, with a knowing smile, said, “The operation is beginning.” I was clearly expected to ask her what she meant. The government, she explained, was mounting a dead-of-night raid on the Mercado Oriental (Eastern Market), Managua’s sprawling commercial center. The purpose of the raid was to root out merchants guilty of speculation. I persuaded her to take me for a look.

The drive to the mercado took about ten minutes. Security was extremely tight. A Sandinista policeman urgently flagged down our car and demanded to know what we were doing there. The compañera flashed her identification card and the guard waved us on. We parked the car and headed down a street that bordered the marketplace. Squads of Sandinista police swarmed through the gloom, their tan uniforms looking ghostly in the dim street lights. Jeeps with MINT (Ministry of the Interior) license plates drove impatiently up and down the avenue. On the pavement lay a dead cat and numerous slabs of splintered wood—all that remained of the speculators’ stalls. Policemen grabbed the planks and pitched them into the back of a truck as it passed. By dawn, two thousand vendors had been evicted.

The raid was part of a sweeping new government program aimed at rescuing the country’s rapidly collapsing economy. At the time, almost everything in Nicaragua was in short supply. All basic goods were rationed, and the amounts were meager: families had to make do with a quarter liter of cooking oil and a pound of rice per person every fifteen days. Supermarkets seemed to stock only items that nobody wanted; during my visit, the most abundant product was Russian sardines, stacked high in crude, bulky tins. Consumers could supplement their rations by shopping in the mercados, but there prices were soaring. By early 1988, the annual inflation rate had exceeded 1000 percent. A taxi ride from the airport to the center of Managua, which had cost 40,000 córdobas in October, was up to 300,000 by February.

The root cause of Nicaragua’s economic woes has been the subject of unending debate. Who is more responsible—the Sandinistas or the contras? Clearly the war has had a devastating impact. Since 1982, the conflict has caused an estimated $3.5 billion in economic destruction. The contras have made targets of agricultural cooperatives and state farms, causing a serious drop in food production. In Managua and other cities, power failures and water cutoffs are a fact of daily life. In addition, the government spends a full 50 percent of its budget on the war effort.

At the same time, Sandinista economic policy has not helped matters. This can be seen from the government’s new monetary program, announced on February 14. In some respects, the package was remarkably traditional. The government called in all old córdobas and replaced them with new ones at a rate of one to a thousand. To reduce the budget deficit, the government announced that it was cutting expenditures by 10 percent. Official subsidies for all but a handful of products would be eliminated. In addition, the currency was drastically devalued against the dollar. It was an austere package, one that would gladden the heart of many an international banker. La Prensa, normally critical of the government’s radicalism, now attacked the Sandinistas for aping the IMF!

But there was another side to the government’s program that was more Marxist than monetarist. Unwilling to entrust prices to the free market, the Sandinistas insisted on setting official levels for every product and service. A pound of beans, a bar of soap, a meal in a restaurant, a ride in a taxi—each item was assigned a fixed price. And, to make sure that the new prices stuck, the FSLN declared a war on speculation. Nicaragua’s marketplaces quickly became a battleground. The police moved in en masse, seizing goods and making arrests. Bands of Sandinista militants roamed among the stalls, haranguing merchants thought to be overcharging. Throughout the country, the FSLN organized rallies based on the theme “Death to Speculation!”

The government’s motives were understandable. With food in such short supply, prices could well rise beyond the means of ordinary Nicaraguans. By setting official prices and attacking those who violated them, the government was seeking to keep basic goods at reasonable prices. Call it Sandinista price controls. To further boost purchasing power; the government announced sizable wage increases for most workers. Unfortunately, the Sandinista strategy overlooked the basic law of supply and demand; no matter how hard the government might try to deny it, when goods are scarce, prices are going to rise. Moreover, the government was creating turmoil in the nation’s food distribution system. Indeed, Sandinista denunciations of the country’s merchants became so emotional that more than mere economics seemed to be at work. In laying siege to the markets, the Sandinistas were, in effect, serving notice of their intention to deepen the class struggle in Nicaragua.

Of all the topics I raised with Sandinista officials, the question of class conflict caused them the most trouble. To be a good Sandinista, was it necessary to believe in class struggle? The question often met with uneasy pauses and labored qualifications. When pressed, however, most officials affirmed their belief in this core Marxist principle.

“Class conflict is part of the reality of our country,” Moisés Hassan, the mayor of Managua, told me. “It’s a means of attaining social justice.” Hassan has held a series of important government posts, including membership in the first post-revolutionary junta. (Soon after I talked with him, Hassan—holder of a doctorate in statistical physics from the University of North Carolina—was named rector of an engineering university in Nicaragua.) A candid, soft-spoken man, Hassan talked at length about the early errors of the revolution. “We were guilty of romanticism, of too much revolutionary fervor,” he said. “Since we managed to overthrow Somoza with so few people, we had an exaggerated confidence in our ability to bring about rapid change. We simply tried to do too much at once.”

Since Hassan was willing to be critical, I asked him about a 1981 incident that, in retrospect, seems to have marked a turning point in the FSLN’s relations with the private sector. In October of that year, COSEP, Nicaragua’s leading business organization, sent the government a strongly worked letter protesting its “Marxist-Leninist ideological line.” The Sandinistas responded by jailing the COSEP president, Enrique Dreyfus, and three of his associates. The international protest was so great that the government eventually had to relent and release the four men. By then, however, the damage had been done.

Had the government acted wrongly? “I don’t think so,” Hassan said. “From the start, COSEP, for reasons of class and economic interest, tried to frustrate the government’s decrees. They wanted nothing less than to defeat the front. The front had to choose: either people would have to obey the law or we would end in anarchy. There was no alternative.” Hassan was right in saying that COSEP was adamantly opposed to the FSLN. But the businessmen had committed no offense other than to express their views openly. Moreover, the incident permanently soured many businessmen on the revolution. Even with the advantage of six years of hindsight, however, Hassan still regarded the government’s actions as justified.

Sandinista economic policy has been marked by a strange paradox. From the start, the FSLN leaders have shown that they could be pragmatic in setting economic policy. The shift in land policy is only one example. The government has provided attractive incentives to private producers, given increasing play to the free market, and, more generally, upheld its commitment to a mixed economy. At the same time, however, the Sandinistas (many of whose top leaders come from well-off families) have put forth a class analysis that is highly schematic. At the top, they say, are the bankers, financiers, capitalists, factory owners, and large landholders—the bourgeoisie. Below them are the merchants, vendors, and other small-time entrepreneurs—the petite bourgeoisie. Then come the workers and peasants—the revolutionary masses.

The masses, of course, make up the FSLN’s social base. Improving the lot of the poor is at the heart of the front’s political program and is the basis of its appeal. What is dismaying is the FSLN’s belief that in order to serve the masses it must behave belligerently toward everyone else. “We have a pitiful bourgeoisie—a bourgeoisie we’re ashamed of,” one front official told me. During my visit to the cadre school in Estelí, I asked the students if they regarded the bourgeoisie as the enemy. “Of course,” they said. Even more revealing, Bayardo Arce, in describing the government’s campaign against speculators, talked of conducting “economic guerrilla warfare.”

I caught a glimpse of the so-called speculators during a visit to the office of an opposition labor federation, the Confederación de Unificación Sindical, located down the road from the Mercado Oriental. It was a few days after the government’s raid, and some of the evicted vendors had come seeking help in getting back their merchandise. Almost all were elderly women whose plain dresses and indigenous features indicated that they were not long removed from the countryside. It is common knowledge that the Mercado Oriental is a stronghold of anti-Sandinista sentiment. Still, the women who work there hardly looked like bloodsucking capitalists.

I’ve seen these women in other countries as well. They’re a fixture in small agrarian societies, where the modern economy is too weak to provide enough jobs. People do whatever they can to get by—shinning shoes, selling lottery tickets, hawking newspapers, driving trucks, keeping shop, begging. In many developing nations, this informal sector dwarfs the modern one. This is especially true in countries at war, where so many resources get channeled into the military.

The Sandinistas have never understood this. “We’ve had many problems in the way we’ve handled the informal sector,” says the economist Mario Arana, research director for a think tank that advises the government. “The government speaks of the informal sector as if it’s made up entirely of speculators. In fact, the speculators make up only a very small part of it.” Actually, “pure” peasants are hard to find in Nicaragua; to get by, most rural households must resort to supplementary lines of work—selling handicrafts, growing ornamental plants, making furniture, vending, and the like.5

The state of Nicaragua’s economy is so desperate that no matter what the government does people will be dissatisfied. After all, the country has been at war, and though the government has done its best to maintain an air of normalcy, reality always intervenes. The electricity tends to go off just as the TV soap operas come on in the evening, and people leave their faucets open all night to catch water in the rare hours when it is turned on. Toothpaste and soap are in short supply and meat is rapidly becoming a luxury.

Unfortunately, the Sandinistas’ highly politicized approach has had the effect of making a bad economic situation worse. Thus, after the raid on the Mercado Oriental, merchants took all basic grains off the market, making the food shortages even more acute. Even though Managua was already experiencing a severe shortage of transport, the government insisted on seizing vehicles whose owners were accused of overcharging passengers; seven hundred cars and trucks were taken out of service, leaving thousands more people standard.

The FSLN’s insistence on rigid class distinctions is all the more confounding in view of its experience during the anti-Somoza years. Before 1979, the front’s two most orthodox factions wanted to base the revolution on narrow social groupings—the peasants in one case, the working class in the other. However, a third faction (the Terceristas), led by the Ortega brothers, perceived that many people of the middle class were ready to move against the dictatorship; accordingly, they advocated the creation of a multiclass alliance. Eventually the front adopted such a strategy, creating a broad movement that included among others self-employed entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, and small businessmen—in short, the petite bourgeoisie. The alliance with these groups proved decisive in the revolution’s success.

The Sandinistas seem to have forgotten this lesson. At a time when the rest of the Marxist world is recognizing the value of entrepreneurship and the marketplace, the FSLN is clinging to a conception of society rooted in nineteenth-century Europe. If Nicaragua is to move beyond its current political impasse, the Sandinistas will have to relax their claim to be a vanguard and recognize the legitimacy of other social groups. How likely is that to happen?


Analysts of Sandinista politics generally talk about the two poles within the National Directorate, centered on Daniel Ortega,the moderate, and Tomás Borge, the radical. The division between them is real enough. But such an approach by reducing politics to a matter of personalities, obscures more important institutional trends.

The most significant of these trends is the growing distinction between the Sandinista Front and the Nicaraguan government—between the party and the state. The link between the two remains strong. The FSLN controls all the top ministerial posts and most positions of influence within the army and police. Of the principal political goals of the opposition parties—whether conservative, liberal, or socialist—the most significant is to break the Sandinistas’ monopolistic hold on the security forces.

Nevertheless, there have been significant changes within the front, beginning with the election of Daniel Ortega as president in November 1984. Before then, the FSLN’s top organ, the National Directorate, formulated government policy and carried it out by decree. In fact, after the first year of the revolution, directorate members held all important government ministries.6 Power was spread among the council’s nine comandantes, who, though often holding sharply differing views, arrived at their decisions collectively.

With Ortega’s inauguration as president, the revolution finally gained an undisputed leader. When it comes to the office of la presidencia, Nicaragua hardly differs from the rest of Latin America. The man who wears the mantle of president inevitably benefits from the authority and prestige attached to the office. Ortega now became primus inter pares among the nine comandantes. The directorate remained the party’s supreme body, setting broad policy outlines, but power gradually flowed to the Casa de Gobierno. To consolidate his control, Ortega reorganized the directorate itself, creating a five-member executive commission and becoming its chairman. Given Ortega’s more flexible brand of politics, the effect of these changes has been to improve the Sandinistas’ capacity for accommodation.

This has been most apparent with respect to the Arias peace plan. Before Ortega left for the August 1987 meeting of Central American presidents, the National Directorate met to discuss strategy. It eventually granted Ortega very broad authority to act as he thought circumstances required. Ortega eventually used that discretion to sign his name to the accord—a move that caught many in the front by surprise. In the following months the directorate continued to play a subordinate role in the peace process. “Most of the decisions relating to the Arias plan, especially urgent decisions, were taken by Ortega and [Foreign Minister] Miguel D’Escoto working together,” a West European observer with good ties to the Sandinistas told me. “Only a small number were put on the table of the National Directorate.” Overall, he said, the Arias agreement has resulted in “an enormous strengthening of the executive and a weakening of the party.”

A similar pattern is at work in economic policy making. During the early years of the revolution, control of the economy rested with Henry Ruiz. Despite his unfortunate experience at Patrice Lumumba University, Ruiz remained on good terms with Moscow, which might explain his enthusiasm for highly centralized state control. Ruiz presided over a bloated Ministry of Economic Planning, whose reach extended into every cranny of the Nicaraguan economy—an approach that proved disastrous. Eventually, the planning ministry was downgraded and, in 1985, Ruiz was removed from his post. A new Commission of Economic Planning was established and placed under the direct control of President Ortega. The key economic ministries went to technocrats who, while solid Sandinistas, also knew something about pricing policy and demand curves. Gradually, the state’s role in the economy was pared back.

Overall, the rise of the executive has come at the expense of the party and the militant in charge of it, Bayardo Arce. Arce has been burned several times of late by government decisions he apparently knew little about. The most blatant instance occurred last October, when Daniel Ortega announced that the government would reverse its longstanding policy and enter direct negotiations with the contras. Just days before, Arce made a fiery speech that seemed hostile to negotiations. With Ortega’s announcement, he was forced to backtrack.

It would be foolish, however, to count the party out. The recent upsurge in opposition activity has provoked a vigorous response from the FSLN. As the return of the turbas indicates, the party has rediscovered the uses of raucous street action. What’s more, the front, anticipating the next national election, scheduled for 1990, recently overhauled its own internal apparatus. For instance, it assigned Dionisio Marenco, one of the FSLN’s most competent cadres, to direct the party’s Department of Agitation and Propaganda, which is responsible for ideological work. Similarly, the naming of Omar Cabezas to head the CDSs signals an effort to breathe new life into that discredited institution.

Then, too, the government’s new monetary program, with its emphasis on mobilizing mass demonstrations and street rallies, suggests a resurgence of the party in the economic sphere. So does the recent appointment of Comandante Luis Carrión Cruz as a new economic czar. Carrión might seem a strange choice; since 1980 he has served as deputy minister of the interior for intelligence and security. A well-placed pro-Sandinista economist speculates that Carrión’s appointment represents an effort by the directorate to reassert its control over economic policy. If this analysis is correct, the front might seek to increase its use of class struggle as an instrument of economic policy.

Ultimately, the most important factor in the balance between party and state is the war. In almost all respects, the war has served to reinforce the front’s more ideological tendencies. For instance, the Sandinista Popular Army puts all new recruits through a concentrated program of ideological instruction. Given the recruits’ tender age, such training generally leaves a deep impression. Thus, as the army has expanded, so has the reach of the party. In fact, the Sandinista Popular Army today constitutes the single largest source of new militantes.

The war has also strengthened the Ministry of the Interior, the government body responsible for controlling internal dissent. The MINT, headed by Tomás Borge, has been in charge of the war’s “internal front.” In that capacity it has sought to infiltrate and smash all contra support networks inside the country. In those regions where the fighting has been the most intense, the ministry has become the de facto organ of government. Under the state of emergency, the ministry’s state security system could detain people at will and hold them incommunicado for months. In many cases, people were seized simply on the basis of accusations by neighbors that they were engaged in “subversive” activity. At any given time, state security held hundreds of Nicaraguans in hidden cells around the country.

Today the MINT consumes a full 10 percent of the government’s overall budget. The ministry has its own hospital, gas stations, restaurant, and school. And, I was told, it maintains informers throughout the government. Fed by the war, the Ministry of the Interior has become a mammoth, mysterious institution whose full reach only Tomás Borge knows for sure.

Borge may have benefited from the war in other ways. “Had there not been a war, I think there would have been a move after 1985 to go after the ideological types and demote Borge, Ruiz, and Arce,” a senior Western diplomat told me. The Terceristas, he added, “would have taken over under the banner of perestroika.” Given the continuing hostilities with the United States, though, such a purge was out of the question. “The lesson of Grenada was very clear,” the diplomat observed. “If the leadership splits, Ronald Reagan sends in the Marines. That’s axiomatic to them.”

On a longer-term basis, as well, the war has served the cause of dogmatism. The up-and-coming generation of Sandinistas has spent most of its formative years in war-related activities. First there was the militia, then the army, and finally the reserves. Such extended exposure to military institutions has left its mark. “The new generation is incredible,” says the economist Xabier Gorostiaga. While expressing admiration for the conviction of these young militantes, he says he’s also afraid of them. “They’re much more rigid than the older Sandinistas,” observes Gorostiaga. If the war continues, he adds, it could cause the new generation to become more doctrinaire still, and that, he says, would “make it very difficult to maintain a pluralistic system. That’s why Ronald Reagan is the best ally of a totalitarian regime here.”


Until recently, the main topic of conversation in Nicaragua was the war—its daily casualty toll, its economic side effects, its seeming interminability. Now, with the dramatic developments at Sapoá, Nicaraguans are daring to look to the future. The reconciliation talks might collapse at any moment, of course, but there is an unmistakable sense in Nicaragua that a watershed has been reached—that henceforth the battle will be more political than military. As a result Nicaraguans are, for the first time, thinking about what their country in peacetime could become.

In fact, it’s easier to say what it won’t become. It won’t become Costa Rica. Many Nicaraguans look longingly to their prosperous, democratic neighbor as a model for their own country. They are especially drawn to Costa Rica because it lacks an army. At this time, of course, the thought of a demilitarized Nicaragua is utopian, so members of the opposition are seeking the next best thing: depoliticizing the Sandinista Popular Army. Of the opposition’s many demands, ending Sandinista control of the army is by far the most important. “The acid test for the Sandinistas is, will they ever change their party army into a national army, one that is guardian of all the people?” the contra leader Alfonso Robelo recently told me. “Virtually all officers of the Sandinista army,” he continued, “belong to the party. If this doesn’t change,” Robelo added, “the only democracy we’re talking about is a Sandinista-type democracy.”

It is precisely on this point, however, that the Sandinistas are least likely to bend. They regard their control of the army as the only certain guarantee of the revolution’s survival. The Sandinistas have studied Allende’s experience in Chile and they have concluded that his greatest mistake was not to rein in the armed forces. Humberto Ortega’s acknowledgement that even in peacetime Nicaragua will maintain a military force of 600,000 (including reserves) indicates that the armed forces will remain a major prop of Sandinista power for years to come.

If Nicaragua is not likely to become Costa Rica, it is also unlikely to become Cuba. The Reagan administration’s prediction—that, without US-sponsored military pressure, the Sandinistas will simply crush all internal dissent—may turn out to be a reflection of its own geopolitical obsessions. A resolution of the war, it seems, could only strengthen Daniel Ortega’s hand within the FSLN, affording him greater leverage in pursuing a policy of moderation.

Furthermore, the end of the fighting would likely contract Tomás Borge’s sphere of control. Already, lifting the state of emergency has deprived the Ministry of the Interior of its legal authority to detain prisoners and hold them indefinitely. State security can now legally hold people for a maximum of seventy-two hours before having to charge them. It’s as yet unclear whether the ministry is complying with this provision, but, if the war winds down, it will inevitably find its power curtailed.

Whatever course of action the Sandinistas adopt, they will surely be constrained by their hunger for international assistance. Nicaragua needs billions of dollars to rebuild its economy. The Soviet Union has clearly indicated its unwillingness to foot the bill. That leaves Europe, the United States, and the multilateral lending institutions. As the Sandinistas have already learned, the one sure means of turning off the tap is to tamper with La Prensa or throw their opponents into jail. The FSLN is unpredictable but, in view of the priority it has placed on reconstruction, it is hard to imagine that the party would tempt foreign powers to cut off aid any time soon.

The key variable in Nicaragua’s future, I think, is the extent of popular support for the Sandinistas. I asked Sergio Ramírez how he thought the FSLN would do if an election were held soon. He paused briefly, then said, “No worse than in 1984.” In that year’s election, the Sandinistas took 67 percent of the vote. While in Nicaragua I met few militantes willing to consider the prospect of winning anything less. It’s an article of Sandinista faith that the front’s support among the “masses” remains unshaken.

Such an analysis is hard to credit. The cumulative effects of the war—the shortages, the inflation, the blackouts, and the bloodshed—have made daily life an ordeal. And, as in most countries, Nicaraguans tend to hold the government responsible. In Managua and other cities people require little prompting to pour forth a catalog of complaints against the FSLN. When one takes account of such feelings, 67 percent seems a fantasy.

The Sandinistas themselves seem to realize this—witness their intensive preparations for the 1990 election. With the war winding down, the party is vigorously working to bolster its position with potential voters. The new economic policy is a key component. In raising salaries and trying to contain prices, the government is seeking to win favor with the nation’s wage-earners. And, in the countryside, the government is offering rural producers a great many attractive new incentives. Given the huge resources at its disposal, the FSLN could recover some of the good will it has squandered over the years.

One way or another, the election will provide a clear test of the FSLN’s claim to be a vanguard party. A vanguard is by definition popular, and the front is looking for an impressive showing to silence skeptics. At the very minimum, the front needs a majority. That would guarantee it control of both the Casa de Gobierno and the National Assembly. Together with control of the army, such an electoral majority would secure the Sandinistas a continued hold on power.

Of course opposition leaders foresee a very different outcome. According to them, the front, having so mismanaged the economy, will prove unable to revive its once great popularity. Chastened by its poor performance in 1984, much of the opposition will unite behind Virgilio Godoy (leader of the Independent Liberal Party), Alfredo César, or some other candidate with general appeal. On election day itself, the presence of swarms of observer groups and journalists will ensure a more or less fair ballot. In such circumstances, the opposition parties, while unlikely to win an outright victory, could bring the Sandinista vote below 50 percent. If the current electoral system is maintained, the FSLN would then have to form a coalition government.

That would create a real dilemma. For vanguard parties do not receive pluralities. They do not rule by coalition. They do not engage in such parliamentary niceties as deal making and horse-trading. Historically, Marxist-Leninist vanguards finding themselves in such straits have always devised an extralegal means to stay in power. The FSLN could well do the same. Then again, the Sandinistas have never shown much respect for the laws of history.

April 14, 1988

This Issue

May 12, 1988