The Impact of the Sandinistas on Nicaragua

Copyright 1998, by Jorian Polis Schutz

The Sandinista Revolution of 1979, in the nation of Nicaragua, is a controversial and thought-provoking revolution. In one year, Nicaraguans went from being ruled by a strict right-wing dictatorship to being controlled by left wing, idealistic revolutionaries. Which is the lesser of the two evils? Which, if any, was good for the nation and people of Nicaragua? These questions can only be answered by studying the Sandinista Revolution in close detail. The Sandinistas have undeniably had an enormous impact on their people, and in evaluating them, all aspects of their rule must be taken into account.

Before delving into the Sandinista revolution, the scene must be set, and the background must be understood. The Republic of Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America, both size-wise (with 49,579 sq. mi.) and population-wise (with more than four million). In 1926, a large revolution in Nicaragua threatened dictatorial rule of the nation. Headed by General Augusto Sandino, the new leftist revolutionaries took to guerilla warfare and killed many US marines, who had come to aid the rightist regime. The war continued until 1934, when General Anastasio Somoza, of the rightist regime, invited Sandino to meet in Managua for peace talks. Sandino agreed, and upon his arrival Somoza summarily seized and executed the man. The revolution was finally subdued, and in 1937 Somoza became dictator. From 1937 to 1979, Nicaragua was ruled autocratically by two successive generations of the Somoza family. This seemed to please the US, which preferred rightist regimes to leftist ones. But though Sandino’s revolution had failed, the seed of radicalism had been planted, and soon new leftist groups had emerged.

By the 1970’s, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) had grown in popularity and started to threaten Somoza’s hegemony. The Sandinistas, naturally, had taken their name from Augusto Sandino, the martyr who fathered the leftist cause in Nicaragua. The Sandinista cause was supported by three major beliefs, “the three legs of the stool of Nicaraguan revolutionary democracy” . The first, political democracy, meant that the Sandinistas supported a republican form of government, based on elections with universal suffrage. The second, participatory democracy, meant active citizen participation in government organizations, task forces, etc. Finally the third, economic equality, meant a communistic economy and complete equalization of wealth, incorporating both Marxist and socialist ideas. These three ideals together form a very interesting combination. Whereas in Russia Lenin and Stalin had focused primarily on economic equality, and “forgotten” Marx’s rule by the workers, the Sandinistas held a much better potential of representation of "Applied Marxism".

The Sandinistas were influenced by three major groups of thought. First, and perhaps most heavily, they were influenced by the teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx’s dialectical materialism, proletariat revolution, and rule by the workers seemed perfect and ingenious. The Sandinistas arrogantly viewed themselves as the catalyst of the proletariat revolution in Nicaragua. Second, they were influenced by Augusto Sandino, the aforementioned hero of the anti-US struggle. Sandino was a paternal character whose ideas were reflective of his pagan religion, his Marxist beliefs, and his close association with anarchism. Finally, they were influenced by the Christian Theology of Liberation. With this philosophy, the Sandinistas justified their revolution as freeing people from social, economic, and political oppression. The Sandinistas were a mixture of these influences, which made them a very unique cause, and very unique leaders.

On August 22, 1978, twenty-four Sandinista guerillas stormed the national palace at Managua, and by July 17, 1979, the Sandinistas had formally taken power. The Sandinistas quickly wrote and passed a provisional constitution, The Fundamental Law of State. This constitution guaranteed human rights that were previously ignored by the Somoza regime. It guaranteed equal justice under law, the right to free expression, and the abolition of torture. It seemed that the people were already benefiting from this great revolution, which truly did liberate them. Despite this advance in human rights, though, the Nicaraguan economy was still failing, and with the newly imposed US embargo, Nicaraguans were suffering greatly.

The Sandinistas, in the first few months of their sovereignty, seemed to ignore the first and most important of their principles: political democracy. They immediately set up a ruling junta, made up of five top Sandinista officials, including Daniel Ortega and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. The Sandinistas had promised political pluralism and free elelctions—what had happened? Even the Sandinistas’ call for international nonalignment was violated in the years of the junta, who allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba, receiving heavy financial and military aid from these countries. They grew more and more distant from the US and other capitalist nations, creating international alignment—contrary to what they had promised.

The junta did, though, set out to educate their people in a way the Somoza regime had never attempted. The National Literacy Campaign of 1980 affected one in every two Nicaraguans . The literacy rate rose from 45% to 86% in one of the largest literacy campaigns ever, and the Sandinista government drew international acclaim. In September, 1980, the Minister of National Education, Carlos Tunnermann received the UNESCO Prize. Critics accused the Sandinistas of educating their people with propaganda and attempting to win over the rural proletariat in this way. This was undeniably true in part, but the outcome of this mass campaign was indeed positive.

The junta then quickly set to work on the equalization of wealth that had been promised in the Sandinista platform. Prior to 1979, about 4% of the landowners controlled about 52% of the arable land. The Sandinista junta set out to fix this, trying to make it an equal proportion. They directly started to confiscate Somoza family land, and other, similar land. The nationalization of Somoza’s property alone affected a total of 168 factories—25% of industrial plant in Nicaragua, valued at $200 million. This initial confiscation led directly to the Agrarian Reform Law of 1981, which targeted unused farms, property of absent landlords, and unproductive land for expropriation. From 1981-1985, thousands of acres of land were expropriated and turned into new, peasant collectives. This was efficient and productive towards the communist cause, but many were still unhappy, and all knew that this couldn’t last.

The landlords that had had their land expropriated were also politically and socially persecuted. They eventually fled to the hills and joined the growing group of rightists, left over from the Somoza regime. From the commencement of Sandinista rule, many rightists and right-wing sympathizers had fled for the hills. They feared for their lives, as political persecution was very common in Nicaragua, even under the “secure” new Sandinista regime. With the discrete help of the US, these so-called counter-revolutionaries, or contras, began a guerilla war on the Sandinistas. Despite the irony of this switch in positions, the contras, indeed, became guerillas, right after the Sandinista guerillas had ousted them from power. Though the Reagan administration was officially forbidden by congress to support the contras, the US secretly provided financial aid for them. Through Ollie North and the highly controversial Iran-Contra Affair, the US provided the contras with endless financial aid stemming from profits from an illegal arms trade with Iran. With this aid the guerillas conducted a war similar to that of the Sandinistas before they had taken power. Many Nicaraguans were now starting to doubt both Sandinista rule and the expropriation of the bourgeois land that led to this violence, terrorism, and death.

Along with nationalizing aristocratic land, the Sandinistas began to nationalize certain industries. The Sandinistas issued reform that nationalized sugar distribution, commenced state control over agricultural cooperatives, and started a limited policy of nationalization of business. By 1981, the state accounted for more than 30% of the industry of Nicaragua. The government also initiated control, with so-called ‘wildcat nationalizations’, over 20% of the cotton industry, 50% of the tobacco industry, and 60% of the ‘staple cereal’ industry. The effect that this growing socialistic trend had on the people is arguable. It could be seen as a triumph of the people, the workers, who now are beginning to control their own lives. Contrariwise, it could be concluded that the government was growing more controlling, as the junta’s jurisdiction expanded. This is an argument that still goes on today, and in the case of Nicaragua led to a political and social rift between the contra-sympathizers and the Sandinista-sympathizers.

This rift led to protests, demonstrations, and an increase in guerilla-warfare. The Sandinistas saw this, and in an attempt to resolve the situation, created the ‘National Assembly’, in 1985. The president of the assembly became Daniel Ortega, previously of the Sandinista junta. Though the assembly was overwhelmingly seated by Sandinistas and was somewhat biased, it nevertheless represented a semblance of the democracy guaranteed to Nicaraguans by the Sandinista revolutionaries. It did not, however, stop the constant contra war that was causing so much loss of life.

How was the individual Nicaraguan affected in this long period? They definitely gained some basic rights that had been deprived of them during the Somoza years. Moreover, they gained some say in government matters as well as in the workplace, where they now supposedly ruled. But most Nicaraguans were overwhelmingly poor, and too uneducated to enjoy these new rights. In Nicaragua during the Somoza years, the bourgeoisie had risen and turned into a new, unassailable, indomitable aristocracy. This new aristocracy had all but blatantly exploited the people, and Sandinista rule was a great improvement from this. Otherwise, conditions for Nicaraguans barely changed—the previous enemies became leaders, the previous leaders became enemies, and they could care less whether they were ruled by one or ruled by several.

The Sandinista regime was, day by day, losing the revolutionary ideals they had fought for. In 1986, they closed a popular Nicaraguan newspaper, La Prensa, because of “subversive activities” and anti-Sandinista literature. This caused a massive uproar that only exacerbated the already present conflict. What was different between this and Somoza’s censorship and other conservative activities? Was the classic summation of communism, as detailed in Orwell’s Animal Farm, coming true? Were the Sandinistas, in their glory and triumph, picking up traits characteristic of the previous dictatorial regime, and indeed of any ruling, vanguard party?

Political oppression, freedom violations, oligarchy--these are all things that the Somoza regime represented, and sadly enough, the Sandinistas inherited. The left-wing turned out to be not much of an improvement from the right-wing, as has been the case in history. Despite this, though, there is a rather happy ending to the story of the Nicaraguan people. In 1990, Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, decided to hold free elections within Nicaragua. This controversial decision occurred for several reasons. First, the collapse of the Soviet Union had left Nicaragua seemingly without allies. International pressure was mounting, and many countries were imposing heavy economic sanctions on Nicaragua. Second, the contra war, going on for more than a decade, was getting unbearable to Nicaraguans, who wanted nothing but peace, and a chance to succeed in global markets. For these reasons Ortega gave the presidency up to elections—a noble act that put him in front of the race for president. He lost though, barely, to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, previously of the junta, who had split off and formed the political party National Union of Opposition (UNO). Chamorro became president, and was immediately faced with an endless amount of conflicts to resolve.

Chamorro now had to deal with all of the Sandinista’s errata. The contras, appeased by free elections, had ceased fighting and even put forth a candidate for the presidency. With the return of peace, Chamorro was faced with a new problem. The landlords whom the Sandinistas had confiscated he land from were now returning to reclaim their land. The peasants who had lived on the land in collectives ever since the early 1980’s, naturally refused to leave. This conflict, and other similar Sandinista-induced conflicts were filling Chamorro’s domestic platter. But now there was peace—and there was democracy.

Though the Sandinista Revolution is behind us, the role of the Sandinistas in history is still an enigma, and many questions still remain. Why had the Sandinista’s democratic ideals taken so long to be implemented? The Sandinistas seemed to have democratized themselves a rather long time after they democratized their nation. They had great intentions, but were their plans ever instated? Is the failing of idealistic revolutionaries inevitable? What is the significance of the failed Sandinista economic model? The Sandinistas’ exact long-term contribution to history is as yet unknown. One thing that historians agree upon is that the Sandinistas’ unique case should be subject to intense scrutiny, so that we may better understand history, politics, and humanity.

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