On July 19, 1989, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution which drove the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle from the country, President Daniel Ortega Saavedra spoke from a podium a few hundred yards from the square that was renamed the Plaza de la Revolución after it was destroyed by earthquake in 1972. The square remains a wasteland. Somoza was unwilling to rebuild the downtown district, and the Sandinistas have also failed to do so.

After ten years of Sandinista rule, the Nicaraguan economy is in a miserable state. Between 1981 and 1988, according to a confidential study prepared by a group of international experts at the request of President Ortega, consumption has been cut by 70 percent. Real wages of Nicaraguan workers have fallen to less than 10 percent of their level in 1981, and per capita gross domestic product has dropped to roughly $300 per year, even less than that of Haiti, long considered the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Last year, the per capita output fell to half the pre-1979 level, while prices rose by 33,000 percent. The Nicaraguan gross domestic product fell by 8 percent this past year, and, according to the report, will continue to fall by at least as much in 1989. Industrial production in 1989 is expected to decrease by about 20 percent. These predictions, moreover, were made even before the latest round of devaluations and inflation in June when the value of the Nicaraguan currency fell by two thirds against the dollar.1

Certainly the US trade embargo, imposed in May 1985, and the costs of fighting the US-backed contras have put a severe burden on the economy, with defense expenditures consuming about half of the budget, or, according to the report, about 17 percent of the gross domestic product. In addition, Washington pressed for a cutoff of access to loans from the International Monetary Fund, which further deprived Nicaragua of liquid assets and short-term trade credits. According to the confidential report, Peter Passell wrote in The New York Times, “half of this year’s prospective exports are already pledged as collateral against this year’s imports.”

But the Sandinistas have to bear much of the blame for the mismanagement of the economy. After the 1979 revolution, about 40 percent of cultivated land was confiscated and turned over to large-scale cooperatives or state farms, though a small amount has since been redistributed to individual farmers. Nonetheless, over one half of the economy remains in private hands, including most of the cattlemen and the farmers who grow the country’s staple crops of sugar, coffee, and cotton. About 35 percent of the relatively large industrial enterprises—companies engaged, for example, in sugar refining, food processing, and textile manufacturing—are still privately owned, and 25 percent of the gross domestic product is accounted for by small artisans, such as auto mechanics and repairmen, and small businessmen who are mostly in service industries, such as taxi drivers, shopkeepers, or, in many cases, street peddlers.2 But under the Sandinistas the banking system is run by the state and it controls not only all wages and prices but also import licenses and decisions on where to sell and to whom.

This system of central planning has been disastrous. Even three years ago, when the contra war was at its most intense, the Soviet Union and East Germany, both of which have provided sizeable amounts of military and economic aid—perhaps $8 billion during the last eight years—told the government, according to Henry Ruiz, one of the nine ruling Sandinista commanders, “that we could do much more with the resources we have.”3

According to the US State Department, Soviet-bloc military and economic aid between 1982 and 1988 totaled $5.4 billion, almost half of which went to the military. Much of the economic aid, according to these same sources, is now going into items for current consumption, such as gasoline, new vehicles, and food. Moreover, the amount of aid has dropped from $575 million to $500 million per year during the past three years, which means a significant decrease as the Nicaraguan economy has worsened.

When they took power in 1979 the Sandinistas said they were committed not only to a mixed economy but to political pluralism as well. Here, too, they failed to make good on their promises, once again claiming that the exigencies of war explained why they could not do so. Under the state of emergency that prevailed during much of the 1980s freedom of the press was restricted, political groups were denied access to radio and television and the rights of free association. Political prisoners were denied the right of habeas corpus. The Americas Watch report, Human Rights in Nicaragua 1986, published in February 1987, gave a total of over four thousand “security-related prisoners.” These included former national guardsmen, accused contras, and contra collaborators. Part of the difficulty in compiling these figures is that under the state of emergency people who were arrested for alleged contra activity could be held incommunicado in pretrial detention centers for two-and-a-half to three months.


With the signing of the Guatemala accords by the five Central American presidents in August 1987, new elections, to be held in February 1990, for president, vice-president, a national assembly, and for the municipalities were promised. A number of the restrictions on the press have since been lifted, political parties have been allowed to organize and hold rallies, and many of the political prisoners have been released. According to an Americas Watch report on human rights in Nicaragua, published in June 1989, there are still 1,700 imprisoned. Some are accused of being combatants during the contra war. Others, generally peasants from regions where the contras were fighting, are charged with being collaborators. One hundred accused contras have been released; 1,894 former national guardsmen have also been given their freedom. (Thirty-nine former guardsmen are still in prison.) In February 1989 a second agreement among the five Central American presidents called for the contras to be disbanded and permitted to return to Nicaragua to participate in political life. In fact, while at least seven thousand are still in Honduras, a few of the contras’ civilian leaders, notably Alfredo César, have returned to Nicaragua. To encourage contra political figures to participate in the Nicaraguan election campaign the Bush administration, according to The Washington Post, July 18, 1989, is planning to reduce funding (running to $3 million annually) to contra leaders living in the US.

Ten years ago, apart from the National Guard and a few thousand police and civil officials, opposition to Somoza was virtually universal, drawn from every part of Nicaraguan society. How did the Sandinistas take the revolution over from other anti-Somoza forces? Could the United States, which had long supported Somoza, have done anything to change the outcome? And what are the prospects for the opposition in the forthcoming national elections?

The Reagan administration claimed that Jimmy Carter “lost” Nicaragua to the Communists because he not only failed to support Somoza but actually favored the Sandinistas. Jeane Kirkpatrick made that argument in Commentary in November 1979, in “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” the famous article that drew the distinction between “authoritarian” governments, which the US should support, and “totalitarian” governments, and so impressed Ronald Reagan that he made her his ambassador to the United Nations. In Somoza’s Nicaragua, an “authoritarian” dictatorship, as in Iran under the Shah, she wrote, “the Carter Administration not only failed to prevent the undesired outcome, it actively collaborated in the replacement of moderate autocrats friendly to American interests with less friendly autocrats of extremist persuasion.”

Three recent histories of the Carter administration’s policies toward the Sandinistas flatly contradict Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s assertion. Two of the books are by high officials who served under Carter—Robert Pastor, a member of the National Security Council staff in charge of Latin American affairs, and Anthony Lake, who was head of the State Department policy-planning staff. The third book, by Frank McNeil, ambassador to Costa Rica in both the Carter and Reagan administrations, gives added weight to the evidence that the Carter administration sought to avert a Sandinista victory to the very end, but was badly divided on how to achieve this goal. To their credit Pastor’s and Lake’s books are attempts not to justify what happened, but to discover what went wrong.

Both writers admit to serious errors of judgment. Lake repeatedly cites Pastor’s book for its extensive findings while telling his own story from the point of view of bureaucratic politics. Any understanding of what really happened will have to start with Pastor’s astonishing account of the way policy toward Nicaragua was mismanaged in Washington; his book is truly indispensable in reconstructing the sad history of that period in Central America.


The crisis in Nicaragua can be said to have begun with the brutal slaying by Somoza’s assassins of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro on January 10, 1978. Chamorro, the editor and publisher of La Prensa, had been one of Somoza’s bitterest critics, and his murder was so shocking that it helped to bring together Somoza’s very different opponents, from Marxist guerrillas to conservative businessmen. The guerrilla forces of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) had been fighting against the government since 1961, when Edén Pastora, a social democrat, allied himself with them. The FSLN was then led by Carlos Fonseca, who was later killed by the National Guard in 1976, and by Tomás Borge, who had quit the pro-Moscow Nicaraguan Socialist party because it was unwilling to carry on an armed struggle against the regime. Pastora, known as Comandante Zero, broke with the FSLN in 1973, objecting to its authoritarianism, but in 1976 he was recruited by Humber-to Ortega into the FSLN’s Tercerista faction, and in December 1978 was named chief of the Sandinista army, becoming in fact the commander of the southern front run from Costa Rica. He was, however, never made a member of the FLSN directorate. Just before Chamorro’s death the guerrilla forces, which numbered fewer than five hundred, were far from victory.


After the 1972 earthquake a sizable domestic opposition emerged. A relatively rich and fertile country with a growing industrial base, Nicaragua during the 1950s and 1960s had an average 5 percent growth per year that produced an increasingly prosperous if small upper class of businessmen and large land-owners. When he took power with US backing in the 1930s, General Anastasio Somoza García made an alliance with the landowners of the traditional Liberal party, which had alternated with the land-owners of the Conservative party in running the country since the nineteenth century.

Before General Somoza was assassinated in 1956, both he and his eldest son, Luis, who was to die in 1967, generally shared the spoils with the well-to-do politicians, businessmen, and landowners in the country. After the earthquake of 1972, however, Luis’s younger brother and successor, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, became more greedy. He and his associates siphoned off the international aid that was sent for reconstruction, and many of his old allies in the Nicaraguan upper class began to turn against him. In addition, the growing new professional class of engineers, agronomists, accountants, economists, and others was becoming increasingly fed up with the absence of political liberties under Somoza.

Finally, Nicaragua is one of the most devout of Central American countries, and in the years following the Second Vatican Council of 1962–1965, the Church’s increasing commitment to social justice affected the attitudes of the Nicaraguan clergy toward Somoza’s dictatorship. The 1968 conference of Latin American bishops at Medillin in Colombia declared there must be a “preferential option for the poor” in Nicaragua, but no such option was available.

The Sandinistas also began to attract more than a few Nicaraguan businessmen to their cause, and their acts of military bravado gave them considerable prestige. In 1974 during the Christmas holidays, in a raid of a party being given by a rich friend of Somoza, a small group of Sandinistas captured several of the regime’s prominent officials; after a negotiation mediated by Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, Somoza, in order to free his colleagues, agreed to release fourteen imprisoned Sandinistas, including Daniel Ortega, as well as to provide $1 million in cash and to publish a 12,000-word statement by the FSLN which called upon the people to rise up and overthrow the regime.

By 1978 the FSLN was made up of three factions. The original group, the “Prolonged Popular War” (GPP), included the present minister of the interior, Tomás Borge, whose plan was to organize the peasants in the mountains. This strategy proved unsuccessful, since most Nicaraguan peasants are conservative by nature and wary of revolutionaries. The second faction, the Proletarian Tendency (TP) led by Jaime Wheelock Román, now the minister of agriculture, took a different tack—it tried to organize the workers in the cities—with similar lack of success. The third group, the most pragmatic and ultimately the group that would lead the Sandinistas to victory, were the “Terceristas” (Third Force) led by the Ortega brothers, Daniel and Humberto, sons of a small businessman who ran an import-export firm in Managua. Both boys had gone to private and church schools, and Daniel briefly studied for the priesthood, where one of his teachers was Miguel Obando y Bravo. The Ortegas were prepared to play down the Marxist ideology they had espoused since they were in their teens and concentrate on recruiting a broad coalition of anti-Somoza forces, among them Pastora.

The rest of the domestic opposition was scattered. From his office at La Prensa Pedro Joaquín Chamorro led a coalition of opposition parties that called itself the Democratic Union of Liberation (UDEL). These coalition parties represented a considerable spectrum of Nicaraguan society, including prosperous landowners and middle-class business people, socialists with links to the trade unions, and the Social Christian party, a Nicaraguan version of Christian Democrats, who had been rivals of the Sandinistas in trying to recruit students to their cause. Chamorro himself was a member of the Conservative party, whose other prominent members included Adolfo Calero, the manager of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Managua, later to become a leading member of the contra directorate. UDEL, however, was no more than a very loose coalition; its main act of opposition was the decision of its members to boycott the elections to the Somoza-dominated National Assembly during the 1970s.

Another committee was established that included two prominent churchmen, Archbishop Obando y Bravo and Monsignor Pablo Vega, and Alfonso Robelo, a thirty-eight-year-old businessman who manufactured cooking oil and in 1977 was president of COSEP, the umbrella organization for private business. The young manager of the San Antonio sugar refinery, Alfredo César, secretly began organizing a group of young professional men to help with the anti-Somoza movement. 4 But perhaps the most significant of the various opposition groups was the Group of Twelve (“Los Doce”)—prominent Nicaraguan businessmen, lawyers, priests, and educators, who issued a statement in October 1977 insisting that the FSLN had to be included in any settlement of a conflict that was becoming increasingly violent. According to Pastor, “only a few people then knew that the Group of Twelve was created by the Terceristas.” The Ortega brothers had asked Sergio Ramírez, a Nicaraguan novelist, to organize “an alliance with the democratic sectors of the national bourgeoisie.” The Group of Twelve included Arturo Cruz, then working at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. Cruz was to become head of the Central Bank after the revolution and, like Calero and César, later to align himself with the contras.

The Carter White House remained largely indifferent to the events in Nicaragua. The excesses of Somoza’s National Guard—its corruption, brutal tactics against Somoza’s opponents, and use of torture in the jails—Washington saw as posing problems of human rights, and, as Pastor recalls in his book, Somoza was warned of the State Department’s disapproval. Nonetheless, some of Carter’s most influential advisers, such as Cyrus Vance, Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake, and Patricia Derian at the State Department believed that the US should not intervene in the domestic affairs of Latin American nations; moreover, Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski had written in 1970 that the US should abandon the Monroe Doctrine and the “special relationship” with Latin America and place relations with the region “on the same level as its relations with the rest of the world.”5 Yet precisely because Carter was primarily concerned about the Somoza regime’s human rights abuses, and thought he could get Somoza to rectify them, US policy toward Nicaragua started to become muddled.

The death of Chamorro at the hands of Somoza’s thugs in 1978 posed a challenge to the US. The publisher had been a great friend of Venezuela’s President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had developed an unusually close friendship with Jimmy Carter. On January 31, 1978, Pérez wrote Carter calling on him to take “joint action,” including an effort to arrange an investigation in Nicaragua by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Within the Carter administration, the human rights office of the State Department felt strongly that the United States should distance itself from dictators like Somoza; it opposed any US action in Nicaragua that might imply support of Somoza or even collaboration with him. On the other hand, the State Department Bureau of Latin American Affairs saw Pérez’s letter as a way of involving itself in Nicaraguan politics, although not yet with the aim of overthrowing Somoza. Pastor, working on the National Security Council staff in the White House, was concerned to keep the administration from getting bogged down in Latin American affairs. Carter’s reply to Pérez pulled its punches: “We can and will voice our preference for increased democratization….But we will not intervene or impose specific political solutions for individual countries.”6

Later when Carter met with Pérez in Caracas, Pérez warned him that if nothing were done to get rid of Somoza, Carter would end up with a Sandinista leader much like Castro. According to Pastor, Carter apparently took the diagnosis seriously but had nothing to recommend except an appeal to Somoza to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to visit Nicaragua. The US had already frozen its aid program to Nicaragua. Characteristically, Carter clung to principle above pragmatism: the United States would not get into the business of trying to change the governments of small nations. Pérez, disappointed, moved without Washington’s knowledge to give political, diplomatic, and finally military support to the Sandinistas. As far as he was concerned, Somoza had to go; and if the United States would not take the lead, the Latin Americans who sympathized with this aim would.

The next decision of the Carter White House was to send a friendly letter to Somoza. On June 19, 1978, Somoza promised to invite the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to Managua and allow the Group of Twelve, who had been exiled, to return to Nicaragua. In response, Carter, on his own, asked Brzezinski to have his staff prepare a letter for Somoza expressing Carter’s “appreciation” for these steps. In the State Department, both the Bureau of Latin American Affairs and the Bureau of Human Rights opposed sending the letter; they doubted Somoza’s good faith and feared that it would be interpreted as showing that Washington was not serious about its human rights policy.7

As it turned out, the letter had disastrous results for Carter. When it was finally delivered on July 21, 1978, Somoza, a West Point graduate, took it as evidence that he was making headway with “the middle” (midshipman), as he called Carter. He then arranged a meeting with Carlos Andrés Pérez, in order to show him the letter as evidence that he had Carter’s support. According to Pastor, Pérez simply replied angrily: “I don’t care what Carter says. Our position is firm. You have to go.” Worse, an official in the State Department’s human rights office leaked the contents of the letter to the press; this was the last time the human rights bureau was involved in Nicaraguan policy. From now on US policy toward Somoza would be seen as a matter of “national security.”

In August 1978, Viron Peter Vaky, a former US ambassador to Colombia and Costa Rica, and a former staff member of the National Security Council, was named assistant secretary for inter-American affairs, and he promptly gave a new direction to US policy toward Nicaragua. Lake and Pastor, and other observers as well, describe Vaky as a man of high moral principle who deeply disliked the Somoza regime. He was also, in Pastor’s words, “wary of the slogans, ‘principles,’ or ideology of any particular White House occupant.” Vaky quickly concluded that Somoza had to go and that the United States should use any means short of assassination to make this happen. He was also convinced that the United States, in view of its earlier involvement with the Somoza dynasty, was probably the only force that could accomplish this, and that if it did not take the lead in encouraging the formation of a coalition government to take Somoza’s place, a victory by pro-Castro Sandinistas would soon follow. The US, he suggested, should spread the word among Somoza’s National Guard that the dictator no longer enjoyed American support; this would open the way for a coalition government to be organized.

Neither Pastor nor Lake disagreed with Vaky’s analysis, but they blocked his recommendation: the United States, they believed, wasn’t in the business of overthrowing governments. Moreover, Jimmy Carter believed above all in two principles—multilateralism and nonintervention; and unilateral American action to overthrow Somoza would have violated these convictions. When he later talked with Lake, Vaky said:

The important thing to look at was consequences. Do you use your power to shape the outcome even if it violates the spirit of nonintervention? Or do you hold to the principle at the cost of putting self-imposed limits on your power to resolve a worsening situation? It is a question of what is good versus what is right.

The Carter administration, Vaky believed, failed to exercise the power it possessed because of its misguided attachment to principle. In Lake’s view, however, those, such as Pastor and Lake himself, who opposed Vaky’s suggestion did not think they were asserting principle over pragmatism. “For them,” according to Lake, “the principle they were defending was rooted in practicality.” They were fearful that Vaky would not succeed and insisted that he give them assurances of what would happen once Somoza was forced to leave. Could he guarantee that the moderates would win?

Of course he could guarantee nothing; nor could he provide a blueprint for a post-Somoza Nicaragua. But Vaky knew the region far better than Pastor or Lake, to say nothing of Brzezinski or Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Lake quotes him as saying later: “If I could do it again, I would work out the scenario.” Yet Vaky confessed to me in May of this year that he didn’t think there was a plausible scheme for bringing a new democratic government to power Perhaps if he had produced a scheme that he didn’t quite believe in, it might have persuaded Carter, Brzezinski, and Vance to send a firmer message to Somoza to leave. In any case, Vaky remains convinced, as Lake puts it, “that the moderates would have come to power if the United States had acted to remove Somoza in 1978, before the Sandinistas became stronger and the moderates more divided.” Moreover, as he told me earlier this year, had the moderates taken power “we would have had an obligation to sustain them”—a view that sounds plausible in retrospect.

After tying Vaky’s hands, his superiors at the White House and at the State Department recommended a multilateral effort at “mediation,” in which Latin Americans would take a stronger part in persuading Somoza to leave. In 1978 the United States, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala formed a group to carry out such a mission. Despite the orders given to Vaky that the United States should let the Latin Americans take the initiative, Vaky urged the American mediator, the Nicaraguan ambassador William G. Bowdler, to actively push Somoza toward resignation. Bowdler, like Vaky a foreign service officer with much experience in Central America, was especially troubled by the Cuban precedent. He had spent four years in Cuba as a junior officer and had watched the fall of Batista and the rise of Castro.

Vaky now believes, with some reason, that during the autumn of 1978, before the mediation effort started to collapse in late December, was probably the last time a Sandinista takeover could have been prevented. But the mediation effort was clearly hobbled. In order to force Somoza out of power, Vaky and Bowdler wanted to apply sanctions, which might include stopping imports of meat from Nicaragua, cutting off the economic aid that was being channeled through the Agency for International Development, voting against Nicaraguan loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and even freezing Nicaraguan assets in the United States. In effect, many of the same sanctions were later applied by the Reagan administration against the Sandinistas. But Vaky never had to specify what sanctions could be used because, according to Pastor, “Carter and his senior advisors preferred to threaten Somoza first and only apply sanctions if he rejected the US proposals.” Charles Wilson, a conservative Democratic congressman from Texas who was a strong supporter of Somoza, told Pastor that in retrospect he believed it was quite possible that the dictator would have backed down under strong US pressure. Vaky said later, “I did not oppose the mediation. But I wanted the power steering. I wanted to organize it.”

Perhaps there was a further opportunity for the US to act before the country passed into the hands of the Sandinistas. In December 1978, Somoza sent his cousin, Luis Pallais, to Bowdler with three questions for him to raise with the State Department. If he were to leave Nicaragua, would the United States grant him asylum? Would the US guarantee that he would not be extradited? Could he retain his assets? Vaky distractedly passed on the cable to State Department lawyers to draft a discouraging reply. He never bothered to inform the White House about it; and he now admits he missed a promising signal from Somoza.

After 1978, Panama and Costa Rica allowed Cuba to ship arms to the Sandinistas, and Venezuela, awaiting a new government following its elections, raised no objections. Early in 1979 some of the most talented members of the moderate opposition, who had joined what they called the Broad Opposition Front (FAO), observing the US failure to dislodge Somoza, joined with the Sandinistas to form the National Patriotic Front. Perhaps the most prominent among them was Alfonso Robelo, who flew to Costa Rica to join his old schoolmate, Edén Pastora, whose guerrillas soon became the most effective of the anti-Somoza forces. In March the leaders of three main Sandinista factions, Borge, Wheelock, and the Ortega brothers, met in Havana and formed a united front.


In Washington, policy toward Nicaragua drifted. At the end of January 1979 the CIA informed an interdepartmental meeting that Somoza could probably last for two more years. Even as late as mid-May, a Latin American expert on the policy planning staff at the State Department was informed by a CIA analyst that Somoza could hold out until the end of his constitutional term in 1981.

At the end of May the Sandinistas declared they were starting their “final offensive,” and at the same time they released the names of a five-man “junta” that would serve as the provisional government. It included Alfonso Robelo; Sergio Ramírez of the Group of Twelve; Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro; Moises Hassan, a Sandinista leader of the National Patriotic Front; and Daniel Ortega, of the FSLN Directorate. Alfred César was named secretary to the junta. By now, according to Pastor, Brzezinski, who had not taken the lead in policy toward Nicaragua, was “contemplating military intervention” in order to bring down Somoza and put into office a government favorable to the United States. Brzezinski was increasingly disturbed by the Soviet Union’s “creeping intervention in Afghanistan,”8 and he felt that Carter should demonstrate US strength to Brezhnev by showing a similar willingness to use force in Central America. Carter refused.

In Managua a new American ambassador, Lawrence Pezzullo, was now told to find an officer who was not a follower of Somoza to head a reformed National Guard and to negotiate a peaceful reconciliation after Somoza’s departure by finding some “moderate” Nicaraguans to form a post-Somoza “executive committee.” This quixotic mission was the result of a compromise between Brzezinski’s group and Vaky, who at this point believed it was too late to put together a ramshackle coalition, and wanted closer relations with the Sandinistas’ provisional government. As Pastor put it: “The issue that divided the government—really State from NSC—in the spring was whether to accept an FSLN victory as inevitable and adjust to that, or to believe that nothing is inevitable until it happens.”

Pezzullo tried in vain to organize a peaceful takeover of power and even to find a new commander of the National Guard who could bring members of the guard into a new Sandinista-led army. Astonishingly, no one in the embassy had direct connections with the guard. Somoza had lied to Pezzullo. He was interested only in his own safety and dared not tell his guard officers that he was leaving for fear they would kill him. Pezzullo watched the regime collapse. On July 20, 1979, the Sandinista leaders and members of the junta together drove into Managua, standing on a fire engine.

Lake concludes: “By the time a friendly despot has lost his legitimacy by destroying the trust between his regime and politically significant segments of society, efforts to plug in the liberal formula of reformism are exercises in either irrelevance or destabilization.” Yet he also believes that Vaky was right: 1978 was probably the last moment when moderate elements in the country might have forestalled a Sandinista takeover. But the US government was paralyzed by the contradictions that were characteristic of the Carter administration.

Not only was Carter unwilling to apply serious economic sanctions. He was also unwilling to send an emissary with full authority to make a deal with Somoza to resign, as Reagan later agreed to dispatch Senator Paul Laxalt to tell Ferdinand Marcos that he had to leave the Philippines. In addition, Vaky feels that key congressmen should have been told of the determination to get rid of Somoza; instead, Somoza used his own contacts in Congress to plead his case. The President’s dogged adherence to the principle of nonintervention destroyed any opportunity to prevent the result he particularly feared.

Nonetheless, Carter offered aid to the new Nicaraguan government. He tried not to push Nicaragua so far to the left that US policy would help to create a government allied with Cuba. Congress finally voted aid amounting to $75 million, which the President was not allowed to disburse until October 1980. But by that time, the Reagan campaign platform was deploring “the Marxist Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua,” and calling for an end to the aid program.

During 1980, the original junta was also falling apart as the Sandinistas extended their political control over the country. Violeta de Chamorro and Alfonso Robelo both resigned in April 1980 after a bitter dispute with the Ortega brothers over who was to run the country—the junta, which wanted to hold the Sandinistas to their promises of elections and a mixed economy, or the nine-man Sandinista directorate. The FSLN abandoned its commitment to early elections, and the Sandinistas now refused to set a date for the first round, claiming that more time was needed until the people were ready to vote responsibly. The Sandinistas were also trying to expand the size of the quasi-legislative body called the Council of State in order to give the FSLN a clear majority on it; La Prensa was closed down by an internal strike over what position the paper should take toward the policies of the FSLN.9

Arturo Cruz, the president of the Central Bank, and the lawyer Rafael Córdova Rivas, another moderate, took the places of Chamorro and Robelo in the junta, but soon they too left, when the Sandinistas made it clear they would not tolerate opposition to their economic policies, while the Reagan administration made little effort to reach an accommodation with the ruling comandantes. The Reagan administration’s covert war, which was to make use of the contra army of between 12,000 and 14,000 men, was not organized until 1982, drawing their recruits partly from the bands of anti-Sandinista guerrillas, including pro-Somoza national guardsmen, who had been fighting in Honduras as early as 1980.

Later in 1982, both Robelo and Pastora left Nicaragua to try to organize a political and military campaign from Costa Rica against the Sandinistas. According to Ambassador McNeil, the Sandinistas feared Pastora’s popularity and military skills enough to try to assassinate him. In July 1983, McNeil writes, two Sandinistas who had been planted in Pastora’s entourage actually “blew themselves up on the way to kill two birds, Pastora and Robelo, with one bomb.” Pastora gave up fighting in 1986 after the Reagan administration stopped sending him aid. Alfredo César, who replaced Cruz as head of the Central Bank, also left the country and eventually joined the contra directorate. Cruz was the opposition’s leading candidate for the presidency in 1984, though he withdrew before the elections were held, claiming that the government was not allowing him to campaign freely. Some of his supporters felt he would have done far better to take part in the election and suspected that the US put pressure on him to withdraw. After the revelations of the Iran-contra scandal, he retired from political life.

Throughout the 1980s, notwithstanding the efforts of the Reagan administration to portray Cruz, Robelo, and César as the leaders of a democratic opposition, effective control of the contra forces remained with the former National Guard officers whom the US had backed from the first, a fact confirmed by the successive resignations of civilian leaders.

None of the opposition leaders from the early days of the revolution—with the possible exception of César, who has just returned to Managua—is likely to have a large part in the 1990 national elections. By leaving Nicaragua they appear to have lost their base of support.10 Those who remained behind will probably lead the political opposition in the 1990 February national elections, which Daniel Ortega has promised international observers will be invited to watch.11

Recent polls are inconclusive about what might happen in the elections. According to The Washington Post, an opinion poll taken in December 1988 found that 33 percent of the 1800 people polled in five cities that made up about four fifths of the electorate planned to vote for the Sandinistas, 30 percent for the opposition, with 30 percent undecided; the rest said they would not vote. Whatever the validity of these soundings, the opposition seems divided; it has been in the FSLN’s interest to keep the opposition preoccupied with choosing a candidate. Should the United States intervene by providing covert aid to the opposition, as the Bush administration apparently wants to do, it would certainly become known almost at once, and it would tend to discredit opposition candidates and help the FSLN. Several opposition leaders have spoken out against such aid.12

Six of the more than twenty opposition parties and factions now have a total of thirty-five of the ninety-six deputies in the National Assembly, which makes the assembly an arm of the FSLN.13 The most prominent opposition leaders, however, are not necessarily in the assembly. Moreover, ideological differences in Managua often tend to be less important than personal rivalries. Some of the most effective leaders include right-of-center politicians, such as Mario Rappaccioli from the Nicaraguan Conservative party (PCN), one of the factions of the old Conservative party that opposed Somoza. Traditionally the conservative party stood for a decentralized government and drew its greatest strength in the rural areas. Other right-of-center parties have joined with the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), and two independent labor federations to create the Democratic Coordinadora, headed by Carlos Huembes and Roger Guevara Mena. This marriage of convenience between labor and big business came out of a felt need to form a common front against the FSLN.

At least six of the leaders could broadly be described as centrist, in that they want to encourage private business investment and are also willing to collaborate in varying degrees with the unions. They include Virgilio Godoy of the Independent Liberal party (PLI), which was founded in the mid-1940s to challenge the dominance of the Somozas within the old Liberal party, traditionally the party of urban and commercial interests. Godoy’s PLI had boycotted elections under Somoza, and Godoy himself had served as minister of labor in the Sandinista government until he resigned in 1984 when he grew disillusioned because, he said, the Sandinistas had “no coherent economic policy” and rejected political pluralism.

Other prominent opposition leaders include four leaders of either the Social Christian party—which is said to have the best organization of any of the parties, in part because of its ties to the Church—or groups that have split off from it, as well as Alfredo César of the Social Democratic party (PSD), founded in 1979 by various members of the old Conservative party who had close ties with the martyred publisher Pedro Joaqu/da/in Chamorro. Among the more prominent leftists are Luis Sanchez and Gustavo Tablada of the traditional Nicaraguan Socialist party (PSN).

On the far left is Elí Altimirano Pérez from the Nicaraguan Communist party (PCdeN), who is said to regard the FSLN as dominated by petty-bourgeois reformists. Before the revolution the Nicaraguan Socialist party had been pro-Moscow and actively involved in the struggle against Somoza, particularly in collaboration with the trade unions. The Nicaraguan Communist party, on the other hand, had been pro-Maoist after it broke off from the Nicaraguan Socialists in 1967. Recently, the Socialists have put distance between themselves and the hard-line-Marxist-Leninist dogma of their past.

While the opposition groups differ over how heavily private profits should be taxed and how much power unions should have, they may be able to unite not only in criticism of the Sandinistas’ disastrous economic policies but around a broad program of civil liberties, freedom of the press, the right to strike, and a commitment to a mixed economy. A central problem of the opposition groups has been their habitual unwillingness to work together, but in June fourteen of them formed UNO, the National Opposition Union, a loose coalition reminiscent of the Broad Opposition Front that existed in 1979 during the US ambassador’s mediation efforts. (The Democratic Coordinadora as such, however, is not a member of UNO.) It seems likely that UNO will support one of three candidates: Violeta de Chamorro, the outspoken publisher and president of La Prensa; Enrique Bolanos, a former president of COSEP; or Virgilio Godoy, the Liberal party leader whom many consider the most able politician of the three.

Whatever happens, the Sandinistas are unlikely to relinquish military power. Should they lose the election, their aim, as some of their leaders have intimated to reporters, would be to preserve their control of the army as an independent institution, somewhat in the pattern of other Latin American military organizations, whether in Bolivia or Peru. In Nicaragua the military is subordinated to the FSLN, and any elected government would likely be a hostage to the military, and hence to the Sandinistas. It may be useful to recall the words of Interior Minister Tomás Borge, after the Arias peace plan was signed in August 1987:

It’s a possibility, a real one, backed by our constitution that a force which is not the Frente Sandinista could take over the Nicaraguan government. Personally, I think it virtually impossible for a people to turn its back on history. If that happened I don’t know what would take place but I would cease to believe in history and mankind.14

Moreover, the Sandinistas have been organizing in towns and villages throughout the country, while the opposition has been bogged down in negotiations with the government over rules controlling the electoral process and over the Supreme Electoral Council, which is to be charged with administering the electoral apparatus. A five-man council was finally approved by the National Assembly in early June. Two of the members, Leonel Argüello and Mariano Fiallos, belong to the FSLN; two officially belong to opposition parties—Guillermo Selva from the Liberal Independent party and Aman Sandino Muñoz from the Democratic Conservative party, but Sandino Muñoz is considered by most of the other opposition groups to be a collaborator with the regime; his party participated in the 1984 elections and does not belong to UNO, the opposition front. The fifth member, Rodolfo Sandino Argüello, is described as a nonpolitical “notable.” All these men were appointed by President Ortega, and Fiallos was appointed president of the council. Some opposition leaders I have talked to say this will give the Sandinistas control over the electoral process—a reasonable conclusion since Selva is the only member of the council unambiguously opposed to the regime.


By far the most powerful opposition to Sandinista rule comes from the traditional hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, headed by Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, archbishop of Managua. Even many Jesuits who supported the revolution and criticized Obando’s hostility to the Sandinistas are beginning to defect in the face of growing evidence of the Sandinistas’ gross mismanagement and their inability to relieve poverty. For an assessment of the relation of the Church to the government not only in Nicaragua but throughout Central America, the most illuminating report yet to appear is Edmund R.F. Sheehan’s Agony in the Garden: A Stranger in Central America, an account of his travels through the region between 1985 and the summer of 1988.

Sheehan is an independent Catholic writer, whose book is often poignant in its efforts to strip away the rhetoric of both the Central American Marxists and the US-backed forces that oppose them, and to concentrate on the victims of the conflict between the two. As he traveled through Honduras Sheehan lived close to the rural and city poor, and was befriended by the radical priests who were daily risking attack by death squads. He observes that the US is not only sustaining a brutal regime but that it has concocted a particularly shabby line of propaganda about democracy and “progress” in order to justify it.

In Nicaragua he finds one of his book’s few heroes, Lino Hernández, the Catholic director of the Permanent Human Rights Commission, which has tried to keep track of the thousands of Nicaraguans who have been arrested, sometimes briefly, as part of the regime’s efforts to suppress opposition. Sheehan found the contras’ young peasant recruits he talked to had understandable grievances against the Sandinistas; and this, for him, made it all the more appalling that they were being used by the Reagan administration to create more bloodshed and horror. At times his book is a record of his own despair:

To me the Sandinistas were repugnant, and I shared the social values of La Prensa, the bourgeois intellectuals, the liberal parties of the secular opposition, and Cardinal Obando. Yet none of them had ever denounced the land mines or other atrocities of the counterrevolution, and my dilemma was compounded. I began to sympathize again with the moral outrage of the Sandinistas and then to see the metaphysics of the civil war as an endless corridor, mirror facing mirror.

Sheehan’s treatment of Obando is particularly enlightening. Obando had been friendly to the revolution at the beginning, willing to negotiate with Somoza for the release of Sandinista hostages in 1974, but he turned against the Sandinista leaders by the early 1980s, largely because of their Marxist ideology. Moreover, the Sandinistas encouraged the creation of the so-called Popular Church, whose priests espoused their own version of liberation theology, seeking to incorporate Marxist values into Christian doctrine and hoping to displace the traditional hierarchy. “Within months of their victory,” Sheehan writes, “the Sandinistas made it clear that they would reach into every nook of Nicaraguan life, into the Roman Church itself, and what they could not control they would eliminate, preempt, or push to the margins of society and reduce to impotence.”

The Sandinistas preferred priests who endorsed all of their social experiments but the new Popular Church failed to attract any considerable following. Obando and the Church, Sheehan writes, had an “abiding conception of the citizen—bound umbilically to the Church in sacrament, education, and family ethics, in the whole body of traditional moral and social values—[that] was incompatible with the Leninist vision of the Sandinista vanguard.” Moreover, the archbishop refused to condemn the embittered peasants who joined the contras or gave them support—they were “the kind of Catholics closest to his heart.”

In 1983 the archbishop, in an episcopal letter, outraged the regime by explicitly endorsing conscientious objection by young men subject to the draft. A year later, in a joint pastoral letter, the Nicaraguan bishops called for negotiations between the government and the contras. By 1987, when the contra attacks were at their most frequent, Obando had become the only person both sides could agree on to mediate between the government and the contras. Recently many of the Jesuits in Managua who supported the Popular Church have been reconciling their differences with the Cardinal. As one of them put it to Sheehan:

The Revolution has turned our economy to ruin….We don’t need ideologues to manage the economy, we need pragmatists….I have reconciled with Cardinal Obando and assembled other Jesuits at my table to dine with him….Nicaragua must not become another Cuba….Above all, Nicaragua must have freedom.

The one point on which all sides seem to agree is that the Sandinistas must change their frigid and futile economic policies. In fact they are already trying to do so. They have relaxed some controls over prices and food distribution, and they have announced plans to let the cordoba float freely against the dollar. They are seeking better ties with the United States with a view to getting US support for economic aid from international lending agencies. As for the outcome of the elections in February, a great deal will depend on whether the opposition parties will be subject to harassment and to what degree they will be able to gain access to television and radio and have their views circulated in La Prensa and other papers. In mid-July, the opposition front, UNO, still had no access to an independent television station.

The opposition is off to a late start. As I write in mid-July it has not yet agreed on a candidate or an effective organization. The FSLN, on the other hand, has already assigned organizers to campaign in the rural villages and city neighborhoods, and it also has the advantages that it derives from its control of the security police and the local surveillance organizations it has set up. In addition the government has begun to deploy special units of anti-riot policemen at political rallies and to revive the use of “turbas”—aggressive FSLN demonstrators—to harass opposition politicians.15 Should the FSLN lose, there will doubtless be a struggle for control of the Sandinista-dominated army and the eventual possibility that a military coup could take place.

On the other hand, should the FSLN win the presidency, it may lose the National Assembly. Although the constitution, like most Latin American constitutions, favors a strong executive, the National Assembly has the right to approve the general budget. It also elects judges to the supreme court from slates proposed by the president. According to the constitution none of the legislators elected in February 1990 is supposed to take office until January 1991. Even if the newly elected National Assembly has an anti-FSLN majority, the current Sandinista-dominated assembly could stay in office until the following year. Moreover, should President Ortega and Vice-President Ramírez lose, and resign rather than stay on, the same pro-Sandinista assembly could appoint a substitute Sandinista president to hold office until 1991, when the newly elected president and the new national assembly would finally take power. The permutations in the upcoming Nicaraguan election therefore make it particularly difficult to predict.

Whatever the outcome of elections, however, it is likely that a strengthened opposition will emerge that will make it difficult for the Sandinistas to govern. But the anti-Sandinista parties have yet to show that they can collaborate to form a popular front, let alone a government. Under these circumstances, the most durable opposition force in Nicaragua will doubtless continue to be that of the peasant-born cardinal-archbishop of Managua.

July 20, 1989

This Issue

August 17, 1989