The FLSN overthrew the Somoza regime in 1979, establishing a revolutionary government in its place. Following their seizure of power, the Sandinistas ruled Nicaragua for roughly 11 years from 1979 to 1990, first as part of a Junta of National Reconstruction. Following the resignation of centrist members from this Junta, the FSLN effectively took exclusive power in March 1981. In 1984 there were elections which were very widely observed and almost universally declared to be free and fair in which they won the majority of the votes. The Reagan administration was alone worldwide in disputing the fairness of these elections.
Although the FSLN was voted out of power in 1990, its revolution affected many facets of Nicaraguan society and its legacy has left a lasting impression in the country. The FSLN remains one of Nicaragua's two leading parties. The FSLN often polls in opposition to the Constitutional Liberal Party, or PLC, which represents a roughly similar portion of the Nicaraguan population. In the Nicaraguan general election, 2006 former President Daniel Ortega was re-elected President of Nicaragua with 38.7% of the vote compared to 29% for his leading rival, bringing in the country's second Sandinista government.
The Sandinistas took their name from Augusto César Sandino (1895–1934), the charismatic and historical leader of the country's nationalist rebellion against the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua during the early 20th century, c. 1922 - 1934. Sandino was assassinated in 1934 by the National Guard (Guardia Nacional), the police force of US-equipped Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whose family ruled the country from 1936 until they were overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979.
The Sandinistas were initially organized as a group of student activists at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) in Managua. Their aim was to overthrow the Somoza regime and establish a Marxist state (although such idealism appears to have been at least partly opportunistic, rather than devoted, as a means to secure Eastern Bloc military support to enable seizing and maintaining power by force).
The FSLN was founded in 1961 by Carlos Fonseca, Silvio Mayorga, Tomás Borge and others as The National Liberation Front (FLN). The FSLN official website names the following as founders: Santos Lopez (former Sandino fighter), Carlos Fonseca, Silvio Mayorga, Tomás Borge, Germán Pomares Ordonez, Jorge Navarro, Julio Buitrago, Faustino Ruiz, Rigoberto Cruz and Jose Benito Escobar Pérez. Only Tomás Borge lived long enough to see the Sandinista victory in 1979. The term "Sandinista", was added two years later, establishing continuity with Sandino's movement, and using his legacy in order to develop the newer movement's ideology and strategy. By the early 1970s, the FSLN was launching limited military initiatives.
In December 1974, a guerrilla group affiliated with FSLN seized government hostages at a party in the house of Minister of Agriculture in the Managua suburb Los Robles, among them several leading Nicaraguan officials and Somoza relatives. The siege was postponed specifically until the departure of the American ambassador from the gathering. At 10:50 PM, a group of 15 young guerrillas and their commanders, Pomares and Contreras, entered the house. They killed the Minister, who tried to defend himself, during the takeover. The guerrillas received US$1 million ransom, and had their official communiqué read over the radio and printed in the newspaper La Prensa.
The guerrillas also succeeded in getting fourteen Sandinista prisoners released from jail, and with them, were flown to Cuba. One of the released prisoners was Daniel Ortega, who would later become the president of Nicaragua (1985-1990) and is the current President of Nicaragua (elected November 2006). The group also lobbied for an increase in wages for National Guard soldiers to 500 córdobas ($71 at the time). The Somoza government responded with further censorship, intimidation, torture, and murder.
In 1975, Somoza imposed a state of siege, censoring the press, and threatening all opponents with detention and torture. Somoza's National Guard also increased its violence against individuals and communities suspected of collaborating with the Sandinistas. Many of the FSLN guerrillas were killed, including its leader and founder Carlos Fonseca in 1976. Fonseca had returned to Nicaragua in 1975 from his exile in Cuba to try to reunite fractures that existed in the FSLN. He and his group were betrayed by a peasant who informed the National Guard that they were in the area. The guerrilla group was ambushed, and Fonseca was wounded in the process. The next morning Fonseca was shot by the National Guard.
In the aftermath of the Pancasán guerrilla movement, one of FSLN's historical military defeats back in 1967, the organization adopted the "Prolonged Popular War" theory (Guerra Popular Prolongada––GPP) as the FSLN's strategic doctrine. The GPP was based on the "accumulation of forces in silence", while the urban organization recruited on the university campuses and collected funds through bank holdups, the main cadres were to go permanently to the north central mountain zone. There they would build a grassroots peasant support base in preparation for renewed rural guerrilla warfare.
As a direct consequence of the repressive campaign of the National Guard in 1975 a group within the FSLN's urban mobilization arm began to question the viability of the GPP. In the view of the young orthodox Marxist intellectuals, such as Jaime Wheelock, economic development had turned Nicaragua into a nation of factory workers and wage-earning farm laborers. The rural guerrilla strategy was rejected in favor of self-defense and urban commando actions by armed union members. Wheelock and his followers were purged by the GPP-dominated National Directorate in October 1975. Wheelock's faction was known as the "Proletarian Tendency".
Shortly after, a third faction arose within the FSLN. The "Insurrectional Tendency," also known as the "Third Way" or Terceristas, led by Daniel Ortega and his brother Humberto Ortega, was more pragmatic and called for tactical, temporary alliances with non-communists, including the right-wing opposition, in a popular front against the Somoza regime. By attacking the Guard directly, the Terceristas would demonstrate the weakness of the regime and encourage others to take up arms.
In October 1977 "El Grupo de los Doce", known as the "Twelve", a group of prominent Nicaraguan professionals, business leaders, and clergymen allied to the Terceristas, was formed in Costa Rica. The main idea was to organize a provisional government from Costa Rica. The new strategy of the Terceristas also included unarmed strikes and rioting by labor and student groups coordinated by the FSLN's "United People's Movement" (Movimiento Pueblo Unido - MPU).
On 10 January 1978, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the popular editor of the opposition newspaper La Prensa and leader of the "Democratic Union of Liberation" (Unión Democrática de Liberación - UDEL), the bourgeois opposition, was assassinated. Although his assassins were not identified at the time, evidence implicated President Somoza's son and other members of the National Guard. Spontaneous riots followed in several cities, while the business community organized a general strike demanding Somoza's resignation.
The Terceristas joined the turmoil in early February with attacks in several Nicaraguan cities. The National Guard responded by further increasing repression and using force to contain and intimidate all government opposition. The nationwide strike that paralyzed the country for ten days weakened the private enterprises and most of them decided to suspend their participation in less than two weeks. Meanwhile, Somoza asserted his intention to stay in power until the end of his presidential term in 1981. The United States government replied with the suspension of all military assistance to the regime. Despite this, the U.S. Congress continued to approve economic assistance to the country for humanitarian reasons.
In August, the Terceristas took the initiative by staging a spectacular hostage-taking. Twenty-three Tercerista commandos led by Edén Pastora seized the entire Nicaraguan congress and took nearly 1,000 hostages including Somoza's nephew José Somoza Abrego and cousin Luis Pallais Debayle. Somoza gave in to their demands and paid a $500,000 ransom, released 59 political prisoners (including GPP chief Tomás Borge), and broadcasted a communiqué with FSLN's call for general insurrection. The guerrillas were flown to exile in Panama.
A few days later six Nicaraguan cities rose in revolt. Armed youths took over the highland city of Matagalpa. Tercerista cadres attacked Guard posts in Managua, Masaya, León, Chinandega and Estelí. Large numbers of semiarmed civilians joined the revolt and put the Guard garrisons of the latter four cities under siege. The September Insurrection of 1978 was subdued at the cost of several thousand, mostly civilian, casualties. Members of all three tendencies fought in these uprisings, which began to blur the distinctions between the factions and prepare the way for unified action.
In early 1979, President Jimmy Carter and the United States no longer supported the Somoza regime, but did not want a left-wing government to take power in Nicaragua. The moderate "Broad Opposition Front" (Frente Amplio Opositor - FAO) which opposed Somoza was made up of a conglomeration of dissidents within the government as well as the "Democratic Union of Liberation" (UDEL) and the "Twelve", representatives of the Terceristas. The FAO and Carter came up with a plan that would remove Somoza from office but left no part in government power for the FSLN. The "Twelve" abandoned the coalition in protest and formed the "National Patriotic Front" (Frente Patriotico Nacional - FPN) together with the "United People's Movement" (MPU).
With this action the FAO lost its legitimacy in front of the people that didn't want a "Somocismo sin Somoza" (Somocism without Somoza). This strengthened the revolutionary organizations as tens of thousands of youths joined the FSLN and the fight against Somoza. A direct consequence of the massification of the armed struggle in Nicaragua was the official reunification of the FSLN that took place on 7 March 1979. Nine men, three from each tendency, formed the National Directorate which would lead the reunited FSLN. They were: Daniel Ortega, Humberto Ortega and Víctor Tirado (Terceristas); Tomás Borge, Bayardo Arce, and Henry Ruiz (GPP faction); and Jaime Wheelock, Luis Carrión and Carlos Núñez (Proletarian faction).
The FSLN evolved from one of many opposition groups to a leadership role in the overthrow of the Somoza regime. By mid-April 1979, five guerilla fronts opened under the joint command of the FSLN, including an internal front in the capital city Managua. Young guerrilla cadres and the National Guardsmen were clashing almost daily in cities throughout the country.
The strategic goal of the Final Offensive was the division of the enemy's forces. Urban insurrection was the crucial element because the FSLN could never hope to achieve simple superiority in men and firepower over the National Guard.
On June 4, a general strike was called by the FSLN to last until Somoza fell and an uprising was launched in Managua. On June 16, the formation of a provisional Nicaraguan government in exile, consisting of a five-member Junta of National Reconstruction, was announced and organized in Costa Rica. The members of the new junta were Daniel Ortega (FSLN), Moisés Hassan (FPN), Sergio Ramírez (the "Twelve"), Alfonso Robelo (MDN) and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of La Prensa's editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. By the end of that month, with the exception of the capital, most of Nicaragua was under FSLN control, including León and Matagalpa, the two largest cities in Nicaragua after Managua.
The provisional government in exile released a government program on July 9 in which it pledged to organize an effective democratic regime, promote political pluralism and universal suffrage, and ban ideological discrimination--except for those promoting the "return of Somoza's rule". Somoza resigned on July 17 1979, handed over power to Francisco Urcuyo, and fled to Miami. It was meant that Urcuyo would in turn transfer the government to the revolutionary junta. This agreement was ignored by Urcuyo, who intended to remain in power until the end of Somoza's presidential term in 1981. Two days later Urcuyo left power and fled to Guatemala.
On July 19, the FSLN army entered Managua, culminating the Nicaraguan revolution. The insurrection left approximately 50,000 dead and 150,000 Nicaraguans in exile. The five-member junta entered the Nicaraguan capital the next day and assumed power, reiterating its pledge to work for political pluralism, a mixed economic system, and a nonaligned foreign policy.
Through the media and the works of FSLN leaders such as Carlos Fonseca, the life and times of Augusto César Sandino became the unique symbol of this revolutionary force in Nicaragua. The ideology of Sandinismo gained momentum in 1974, when a Sandinista initiated hostage situation resulted in the Somoza government adhering to FSLN demands and publicly printing and airing work on Sandino in well known newspapers and media outlets.
During the long struggle against Somoza, the FSLN leaders' internal disagreements over strategy and tactics were reflected in three main factions:
Nevertheless, while ideologies varied between FSLN leaders, all leaders essentially agreed that Sandino provided a path for the Nicaragua masses to take charge, and the FSLN would act as the legitimate vanguard. The extreme end of the ideology links Sandino to Roman Catholicism and portrays him as descending from the mountains in Nicaragua knowing he would be betrayed and killed. Generally however, most Sandinistas associated Sandino on a more practical level, as a heroic and honest person who tried to combat the evil forces of imperialist national and international governments that existed in Nicaragua’s history.
DGI chief Manuel "Redbeard" Piñeiro commented that "of all the countries in Latin America, the most active work being carried out by us is in Nicaragua." However, one should keep in mind that there were many other Cuban operations throughout the world.
The DGI, with Fidel Castro's personal blessing, also collaborated with the FSLN on the botched assassination attempt of Turner B. Shelton, the U.S. ambassador in Managua and a close friend to the Somoza family. The FSLN managed to secure several hostages exchanging them for safe passage to Cuba and a one million dollar ransom.
After the successful ouster of Somoza, DGI involvement in the new Sandinista government expanded rapidly. An early indication of the central role that the DGI would play in the Cuban-Nicaraguan relationship is a meeting in Havana on July 27, 1979, at which diplomatic ties between the two countries were re-established after more than 25 years. Julián López Díaz, a prominent DGI agent, was named Ambassador to Nicaragua.
Cuban military and DGI advisors, initially brought in during the Sandinista insurgency, would swell to over 2,500 and operated at all levels of the new Nicaraguan government.
While the Cubans would like to have helped more in the development of Nicaragua towards socialism, they realized that they were no match for the United States' influence throughout Latin America. Following the US invasion of Grenada, countries previously looking for support from Cuba saw that that the United States was likely to take violent action to discourage this. [Banana Republic, Roy Gutman, 1988]
The early years of the Nicaraguan revolution had strong ties to Cuba. The Sandinista leaders acknowledged that the FSLN owed a great debt to the communist island. The relationship was made possible because of Cuba’s commitment to the strategy of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. Once the Sandinistas assumed power, Cuba not only gave Nicaragua military advice but also gave sickness assistance and aid to the impoverished Nicaraguan economy. Cuban aid came in the form of educational assistance, health care, vocational training and industry building. In return, Nicaragua provided Cuba with grains and other foodstuffs in order to help them overcome the effects of the US embargo . Once the Sandinistas assumed power, Cuba’s restraint on aid was lifted and it became an essential component of Nicaraguan development strategy. Cuban aid became important because it came in the form of grants and unconditional loans. (Roberto Perez, 1987) Nicaragua during the Somoza period had been nearly 90% dependent on the United States for assistance. In 1980 Cuban-Nicaraguan aid relations became formalized with the formation of the Mixed Commission for Scientific, Economic and Technical Cooperation. This commission is represented on the Cuban side by the State of Committee for Economic Cooperation and on the Nicaraguan side by the Ministry of Economic Cooperation. New aid agreements were negotiated every year within the framework of the commission. In this context the commission provides a vehicle for Nicaragua to present its various needs and for the Cubans to evaluate which ones they can fulfill (Gary Prevost, 126). The commission has overseen approximately 300 million dollars (U.S) between the years 1979 and 1987 in assistance to Nicaragua and according to Prevost it does not include military aid or the cost of schooling Nicaraguans in Cuba.
According to Andrew, Mitrokhin says during the following three years the KGB handpicked several dozen Sandinistas for intelligence and sabotage operations in the United States. Andrew and Mitrokhin say that in 1966, this KGB-controlled Sandinista sabotage and intelligence group was sent to northern Mexico near the U.S. border to conduct surveillance for possible sabotage.
In July 1961 during the Berlin Crisis of 1961 KGB chief Alexander Shelepin sent a memorandum to Khrushchev containing an array of proposals to create a situation in various areas of the world which would favor dispersion of attention and forces by the USA and their satellites, and would tie them down during the settlement of the question of a German peace treaty and West Berlin. It was planned, inter alia, to organize an armed mutity in Nikaragua in coordination with Castro's Cubans and with the "Revolutionary Front Sandino". Shelepin proposed to make appropriations from KGB funds in addition to the previous assistance $10,000 for purchase of arms.
Khrushchev sent the memo with his approval to his deputy Frol Kozlov and on August 1 it was, with minor revisions, passed as a CPSU Central Committee directive. The KGB and the Ministry of Defense were instructed to work out more; specific measures and present them for consideration by the Central Committee.
Other researchers have documented the contribution made from other Warsaw Pact Intelligence agencies to the fledgling Sandinista government including the East Germany secret police, the Stasi, by using recently declassified documents from Berlin as well as from former Stasi spymaster Markus Wolf who described the Stasi’s orchestration of the creation of a secret police force modeled after East Germany’s
Cuba was instrumental in the Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign. Nicaragua was a country with a very high rate of illiteracy, but the campaign succeeded in lowering the rate from 50% to 12%. The revolution in Cuban education since the ousting of the US-backed Batista regime not only served as a model for Nicaragua but also provided technical assistance and advice. The Literacy Campaign was one of the success stories of the Sandinistas' reign and Cuba played an important part in this, providing teachers on a yearly basis after the revolution. Prevost states that “Teachers were not the only ones studying in Cuba, about 2,000 primary and secondary students were studying on the Isle of Youth and the cost was covered by the host country (Cuba)” (Prevost, 126).
According to Gary Prevost, health care was another area where the Sandinistas made incredible gains and are widely recognized for this accomplishment. In this area Cuba also played a role by again offering expertise and know-how to Nicaragua. Over 1,500 Cuban doctors worked in Nicaragua and provided more than five million consultations. Also Cuban personnel have been essential in the elimination of polio, decrease in measles and lowering the infant mortality rate. He also states that Cuban personnel have made it possible for Nicaragua to have a truly national health care system reaching a majority of its citizens. (Prevost 127)
Cuba has participated in the training of Nicaraguan workers in the use of new machinery imported to Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan revolution put the country’s government on the United States' black book; therefore the Sandinistas would not receive any aid from the United States. The United States embargo against Nicaragua, imposed by the Ronald Reagan in May 1985, made it impossible for Nicaragua to receive spare parts for American-made machines, so this led Nicaragua to look to other socialist countries for help. Cuba was the best choice because of the shared language and proximity and also because it had imported similar machinery over the years. Nicaraguans would come to Cuba for short periods of 3 to 6 months and this training closely involved close to 3,000 workers (Prevost, 128). Many countries, including Canada and the UK sent farm equipment to Nicaragua.
Cuba helped Nicaragua in huge projects such as building roads, power plants and sugar mills. Cuba also attempted to help Nicaragua build the first overland route linking Nicaragua’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts in order to expedite the flow of the $1 Billion of Soviet military aid used to enable the FSLN administration. The road was meant to traverse of jungle. Full completion of the road and usage was hindered by the Contra war, and it was never completed.
Another significant feat was the building of the Tipitapa-Malacatoya sugar mill. It was completed and inaugurated during a visit by Fidel Castro in January 1985. The plant used the newest technology available and was built by workers trained in Cuba. Also during this visit Castro announced that all debts incurred on this project were absolved (Prevost, 127). Cuba also provided numerous technicians to aid in the sugar harvest and assist in the rejuvenation of several old sugar mills. Cubans also assisted in building schools and similar projects.
The Sandinistas inherited a country in ruins with a debt of 1.6 billion dollars (US), an estimated 50,000 war dead, 600,000 homeless, and a devastated economic infrastructure. To begin the task of establishing a new government, they created a Council (or junta) of National Reconstruction, made up of five appointed members. Three of the appointed members belonged to FSLN, which included – Sandinista militants Daniel Ortega, Moises Hassan, and novelist Sergio Ramírez (a member of Los Doce "the Twelve"). Two opposition members, businessman Alfonso Robelo, and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro (the widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro), were also appointed. Only three votes were needed to pass law. The FSLN also established a Council of State, subordinate to the junta, which was composed of representative bodies. However, the Council of State only gave political parties twelve of forty-seven seats, the rest of the seats were given to Sandinista mass-organizations. Of the twelve seats reserved for political parties, only three were not allied to the FSLN. Due to the rules governing the Council of State, in 1980 both non-FSLN junta members resigned. Nevertheless, as of the 1982 State of Emergency, opposition parties were no longer given representation in the council. The preponderance of power also remained with the Sandinistas through their mass organizations, including the Sandinista Workers' Federation (Central Sandinista de Trabajadores), the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Nicaraguan Women's Association (Asociación de Mujeres Nicaragüenses Luisa Amanda Espinoza), the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (Unión Nacional de Agricultores y Ganaderos), and most importantly the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS). The Sandinista controlled mass organizations were extremely influential over civil society and saw their power and popularity peak in the mid-1980s.
Upon assuming power, the FSLNs political platform included the following, nationalization of property owned by the Somozas and their collaborators; land reform; improved rural and urban working conditions; free unionization for all workers, both urban and rural; price fixing for commodities of basic necessity; improved public services, housing conditions, education; abolition of torture, political assassination and the death penalty; protection of democratic liberties; Equality for women; non-aligned foreign policy; formation of a 'popular army' under the leadership of the FSLN and Humberto Ortega.
The FSLN's literacy campaign, which saw teachers flood the countryside, is often noted as their greatest success. Within six months, half a million people had been taught rudimentary reading, bringing the national illiteracy rate down from over 50% to just under 12%. Over 100,000 Nicaraguans participated as literacy teachers. One of the stated aims of the literacy campaign was to create a literate electorate which would be able to make informed choices at the promised elections. The successes of the literacy campaign was recognized by UNESCO with the award of a Nadezhda Krupskaya International Prize.
The FSLN also created neighborhood groups similar to the Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, called Sandinista Defense Committees (Comités de Defensa Sandinista or CDS). Especially in the early days following the overthrow of Somoza, the CDS's served as de facto units of local governance. Their obligations included political education, the organization of Sandinista rallies, the distribution of food rations, organization of neighborhood/regional cleanup and recreational activities, and policing to control looting, and the apprehension of counter-revolutionaries. The CDS's organized civilian defense efforts against Contra activities and a network of intelligence systems in order to apprehend their supporters. These activities led critics of the Sandinistas to argue that the CDS was a system of local spy networks for the government used to stifle political dissent, and it is true that the CDS did hold limited powers -- such as the ability to suspend privileges such as driver licenses and passports -- if locals refused to cooperate with the new government. After the initiation of full-scale U.S. military involvement in the Nicaraguan conflict the CDS was empowered to enforce wartime bans on political assembly and association with other political parties (i.e. -- parties associated with the "Contras")..
By 1980, conflicts began to emerge between the Sandinista and non-Sandinista members of the governing junta. Violeta Chamorro and Alfonso Robelo resigned from the governing junta in 1980, and rumours began that members of the Ortega junta would consolidate power amongst themselves. These allegations spread, and rumors intensified that it was Ortega's goal to turn Nicaragua into a state modeled after Cuban Communism. In 1979 and 1980, former Somoza supporters and ex-members of Somoza's National Guard formed irregular military forces, while the original core of the FSLN began to splinter. Armed opposition to the Sandinista Government eventually divided into two main groups: The Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (FDN), a U.S. supported army formed in 1981 by the CIA, U.S. State Department, and former members of the widely condemned Somoza-era Nicaraguan National Guard; and the Alianza Revolucionaria Democratica (ARDE), a group that had existed since before the FSLN and was led by Sandinista founder and former FSLN supreme commander, Eden Pastora, a.k.a. "Commander Zero". and Milpistas, former anti-Somoza rural militias, which eventually formed the largest pool of recruits for the Contras. Although independent and often at conflict with each other, these guerrilla bands -- along with a few others -- all became generally known as "Contras" (short for "contrarrevolucionarios", en. "counter-revolutionaries").
The opposition militias were initially organized and largely remained segregated according to regional affiliation and political backgrounds. They conducted attacks on economic, military, and civilian targets. During the Contra war, the Sandinistas arrested suspected members of the Contra militias and censored publications they accused of collaborating with the enemy (i.e. the U.S., the FDN, and ARDE, among others).
The rights affected also included certain procedural guarantees in the case of detention including habeas corpus. The State of Emergency was not lifted during the 1984 elections. There were many instances where rallies of opposition parties were physically broken up by Sandinsta youth or pro-Sandinista mobs. Opponents to the State of Emergency argued its intent was to crush resistance to the FSLN. James Wheelock justified the actions of the Directorate by saying “… We are annulling the license of the false prophets and the oligarchs to attack the revolution.” On October 5th, 1985 the Sandinistas broadened the 1982 State of Emergency and suspended many more civil rights. A new regulation also forced any organization outside of the government to first submit any statement it wanted to make public to the censorsip bureau for prior censorship. Notably, emergency measures were already in place before 1982 under the FSLN. In December 1979 special courts called "Tribunales Especiales" were established to process trial of ex-Guardia and Contra rebels. These courts operated through relaxed rules of evidence and due process and were often staffed by new law students and inexperienced lawyers. Under these courts, up to 8,000 ex-Guardia members were tried. By 1986 only 2157 remained in incarceration, out of these, only 39 were left alive by 1989.
While the Sandinistas encouraged grassroots pluralism, they were considerably less enthusiastic about national elections. They argued that popular support was expressed in the insurrection and that further appeals to popular support would be a waste of scarce resources. International pressure and domestic opposition eventually pressed the government toward a national election. Tomás Borge warned that the elections were a concession, an act of generosity and of political necessity. A broad range of political parties, ranging in political orientation from far-left to far-right, competed for power. Following promulgation of a new populist constitution, Nicaragua held national elections in 1984. Independent electoral observers from around the world – including groups from the UN as well as observers from Western Europe – found that the elections had been fair. Several groups, however, disputed this: including UNO, a broad coalition of anti-Sandinista activists, COSEP, an organization of business leaders, the Contra group "FDN", organized by former Somozan-era National Guardsmen, landowners, businessmen, peasant highlanders, and what some claimed as their patron, the U.S. government. Although initially willing to stand in the '84 elections, the UNO, headed by Arturo Cruz (a former Sandinista) declined participation in the elections based on their own objections to the restrictions placed on the electoral process by the State of Emergency and the official advisement of President Ronald Reagan's State Department, who feared that their participation would legitimize the election process. Among other parties that abstained was COSEP, who had warned the FSLN that they would decline participation unless freedom of the press was reinstituted. Coordinadora Democrática (CD) also refused to file candidates and urged Nicaraguans not to take part in the election, the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), headed by Virgilio Godoy Reyes announced its refusal to participate in October.. Consequently, when the elections went ahead the U.S. raised objections based upon political restrictions instituted by the State of Emergency (e.g. censorship of the press, cancellation of habeas corpus, and the curtailing of free assembly).
Daniel Ortega and Sergio Ramírez were elected president and vice-president, and the FSLN won an overwhelming 61 out of 96 seats in the new National Assembly, having taken 67% of the vote on a turnout of 75%. Despite international validation of the elections by multiple political and independent observers (virtually all from among U.S. allies) the United States refused to recognize the elections, with President Ronald Reagan denouncing the elections as a sham.
Daniel Ortega began his six-year presidential term on January 10, 1985. After the United States Congress turned down continued funding of the Contras in April 1985, the Reagan administration ordered a total embargo on United States trade with Nicaragua the following month, accusing the Sandinista regime of threatening United States security in the region.
Due to factors such as natural disasters, state corruption, the Contras, and inefficient economic policies, the state of the Nicaraguan economy declined. The elections of 1990, which had been mandated by the constitution passed in 1987, saw the Bush administration funnel $49.75 million of ‘non-lethal’ aid to the Contras, as well as $9m to the opposition UNO—equivalent to $2 billion worth of intervention by a foreign power in a US election at the time, and proportionately five times the amount George Bush had spent on his own election campaign.. When Violetta Chamorro visited the White House in November 1989, the US pledged to maintain the embargo against Nicaragua unless Violeta Chamorro won. .
In August 1989, the month that campaigning began, the Contras redeployed 8,000 troops into Nicaragua, after a funding boost from Washington, becoming in effect the armed wing of the UNO, carrying out a violent campaign of intimidation. No fewer than 50 FSLN candidates were assassinated. The Contras also distributed thousands of UNO leaflets.
Years of conflict had left 50,000 casualties and $12b of damages in a society of 3.5m people and an annual GNP of $2b. The proportionately equivalent figures for the US would have been 5 million casualties and $25 trillion lost. After the war, a survey was taken of voters: 75.6% agreed that if the Sandinistas had won, the war would never have ended. 91.8% of those who voted for the UNO agreed with this. (William I Robinson, op cit) The Library of Congress Country Studies on Nicaragua states:
Despite limited resources and poor organization, the UNO coalition under Violeta Chamorro directed a campaign centered around the failing economy and promises of peace. Many Nicaraguans expected the country's economic crisis to deepen and the Contra conflict to continue if the Sandinistas remained in power. Chamorro promised to end the unpopular military draft, bring about democratic reconciliation, and promote economic growth. In the February 25, 1990, elections, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro carried 55 percent of the popular vote against Daniel Ortega's 41 percent.
The new government, formed in 1979 and dominated by the Sandinistas, resulted in a socialist model of economic development. The new leadership was conscious of the social inequities produced during the previous thirty years of unrestricted economic growth and was determined to make the country's workers and peasants, the "economically underprivileged," the prime beneficiaries of the new society. Consequently, in 1980 and 1981, unbridled incentives to private investment gave way to institutions designed to redistribute wealth and income. Private property would continue to be allowed, but all land belonging to the Somozas was confiscated.
However, the ideology of the Sandinistas put the future of the private sector and of private ownership of the means of production in doubt. Even though under the new government both public and private ownership were accepted, government spokespersons occasionally referred to a reconstruction phase in the country's development, in which property owners and the professional class would be tapped for their managerial and technical expertise. After reconstruction and recovery, the private sector would give way to expanded public ownership in most areas of the economy. Despite such ideas, which represented the point of view of a faction of the government, the Sandinista government remained officially committed to a mixed economy.
Economic growth was uneven in the 1980s. Restructuring of the economy and the rebuilding immediately following the end of the civil war caused the GDP to jump about 5 percent in 1980 and 1981. Each year from 1984 to 1990, however, showed a drop in the GDP. Reasons for the contraction included the reluctance of foreign banks to offer new loans, the diversion of funds to fight the new insurrection against the government, and, after 1985, the total embargo on trade with the United States, formerly Nicaragua's largest trading partner. After 1985 the government chose to fill the gap between decreasing revenues and mushrooming military expenditures by printing large amounts of paper money. Inflation skyrocketed, peaking in 1988 at more than 14,000 percent annually.
Measures taken by the government to lower inflation were largely wiped out by natural disaster. In early 1988, the administration of Daniel José Ortega Saavedra (Sandinista junta coordinator 1979-85, president 1985-90) established an austerity program to lower inflation. Price controls were tightened, and a new currency was introduced. As a result, by August 1988, inflation had dropped to an annual rate of 240 percent. The following month, however, Hurricane Joan cut a devastating path directly across the center of the country. Damage was extensive, and the government's program of massive spending to repair the infrastructure destroyed its anti-inflation measures.
In its eleven years in power, the Sandinista government never overcame most of the economic inequalities that it inherited from the Somoza era. Years of war, policy missteps, natural disasters, and the effects of the United States trade embargo all hindered economic development. The early economic gains of the Sandinistas were wiped out by seven years of sometimes precipitous economic decline, and in 1990, by most standards, Nicaragua and most Nicaraguans were considerably poorer than they were in the 1970s.
The women of Nicaragua prior to, during and after the revolution played a prominent role within the nation’s society as they have commonly been recognized, throughout history and across all Latin American states, as its backbone. Nicaraguan women were therefore directly affected by all of the positive and negative events that took place during this revolutionary period. The victory of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1979 brought about major changes and gains for women, mainly in legislation, broad educational opportunities, training programs for working women, childcare programs to help women enter the work force and greatly increased participation and even leadership positions in a whole range of political activities. This, in turn, reduced the great burdens that the women of Nicaragua were faced with prior to the revolution. During the Sandinista government, women were more active politically. The great majority of members of the neighborhood committees (Comités de Defensa Sandinista) were women. By 1987, 31% of the executive positions in the Sandinista government, 27% of the leadership positions of the FSLN, and 25% of the FSLN's active membership were women.
Supporters of the Sandinistas see their era as characterized by the creation and implementation of successful social programs which were free and made widely available to the entire nation. Some of the more successful programs for women that were implemented by the Sandinistas were in the areas of Education Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign, Health, and Housing. Providing subsidies for basic foodstuffs and the introduction of mass employment were also memorable contributions of the FSLN. The Sandinistas were particularly advantageous for the women of Nicaraguan as they promoted progressive views on gender as early as 1969 claiming that the revolution would “abolish the detestable discrimination that women have suffered with regard to men and establish economic, political and cultural equality between men and women.” This was evident as the FSLN began integrating women into their ranks by 1967, unlike other left-wing guerilla groups in the region. Considering the Feminist Ideology During the Sandinista Revolution however, demonstrates that this goal was not fully reached because the roots of gender inequality were not explicitly challenged or deconstructed. Women's participation within the public sphere was also substantial, as many took part in the armed struggle as part of the FSLN or as part of counter-revolutionary forces.
Nicaraguan women also organized independently in support of the revolution and their cause. Some of those organizations were the Socialist Party (1963), Federación Democrática (which support the FSLN in rural areas), and Luisa Amanda Espinoza Association of Nicaraguan Women (Asociacion de Mujeres Nicaraguenses Luisa Amanda Espinosa, AMNLAE). However, since Daniel Ortega, was defeated in the 1990 election by the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO) coalition headed by Violeta Chamorro, the situation for women in Nicaragua was seriously altered. In terms of women and the labor market, by the end of 1991 AMNLAE reported that almost 16,000 working women- 9,000 agricultural laborers, 3,000 industrial workers, and 3,800 civil servants, including 2,000 in health, 800 in education, and 1,000 in administration- had lost their jobs. The change in government also resulted in the drastic reduction or suspension of all Nicaraguan social programs, which brought back the burdens characteristic of pre-revolutionary Nicaragua. The women were forced to maintain and supplement community social services on their own without economic aid or technical and human resource.
The 1980 Literacy Campaign is considered to have been a major contribution to Nicaraguan society during the Sandinista rule. The goals of the literacy campaign were socio-political, strategic as well as educational. It was the most prominent campaign with regards to the new education system. Illiteracy in Nicaragua was significantly reduced from 50.3% to 12.9%. One of the government’s major concerns was the previous education system under the Somoza regime which did not see education as a major factor on the development of the country. As mentioned in the Historical Program of the FSLN of 1969, education was seen as a right and the pressure to stay committed to the promises made in the program was even stronger. 1980 was declared the “Year of Literacy” and the major goals of the campaign that started only 8 months after the FSLN took over. This included the eradication of illiteracy, the integration of different classes, races, gender and age. Political awareness and the strengthening of political and economic participation of the Nicaraguan people was also a central goal of the Literacy Campaign. The campaign was a key component of the FSLN's cultural transformation agenda. The basic reader which was disseminated and used by teacher was called "Dawn of the People" based around the themes of Sandino, Carlos Fonseca, and the Sandinista struggle against imperialism and defending the revolution. Political education was aimed at creating a new social values based around the principles of Sandinista socialism, such as social solidarity, worker's democracy, egalitarianism, and anti-imperialism.
Upon assuming office in 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan condemned the FSLN for joining with Cuba in supporting Marxist revolutionary movements in other Latin American countries such as El Salvador. His administration authorized the CIA to begin financing, arming and training rebels, most of whom were the remnants of Somoza's National Guard, as anti-Sandinista guerrillas that were branded "counter-revolutionary" by leftists (contrarrevolucionarios in Spanish). This was shortened to Contras, a label the anti-Communist forces chose to embrace. Eden Pastora and many of the indigenous guerrilla forces, who were not associated with the "Somozistas," also resisted the Sandinistas.
The Contras operated out of camps in the neighboring countries of Honduras to the north and Costa Rica (see Eden Pastora cited below) to the south. As was typical in guerrilla warfare, they were engaged in a campaign of economic sabotage in an attempt to combat the Sandinista government and disrupted shipping by planting underwater mines in Nicaragua's Corinto harbour, an action condemned by the World Court as illegal. The U.S. also sought to place economic pressure on the Sandinistas, and, as with Cuba, the Reagan administration imposed a full trade embargo.
The armed resistance to the Sandinistas in Costa Rica initially called itself the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ADREN) and was known as the 15th of September Legion. It later formed an alliance, called the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), which comprised other groups including MISURASATA and the Nicaraguan Democratic Union. Together, the members of these groups were generally called Contras. The Sandinistas condemned them as terrorists, and human rights organizations expressed serious concerns about the nature and frequency of Contra attacks on civilians. In 1982, under pressure from Congress, the U.S. State Department declared Contra activities terrorism. This meant the US could no longer openly support the Contras. The Congressional Intelligence Committee confirmed reports of Contra atrocities such as rape, torture, summary executions, and indiscriminate killings.
After the U.S. Congress prohibited federal funding of the Contras in 1983, the Reagan administration continued to back the Contras by covertly selling arms to Iran (then engaged in a vicious war with Iraq, which was also receiving US military aid at the time) and channelling the proceeds to the Contras (see the Iran-Contra Affair). When this scheme was revealed, Reagan admitted that he knew about Iranian "arms for hostages" dealings but professed ignorance about the proceeds funding the Contras; for this, National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Oliver North took much of the blame.
Senator John Kerry's 1988 U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report on links between the Contras and drug imports to the US concluded that "senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras' funding problems." According to the National Security Archive, Oliver North had been in contact with Manuel Noriega, the US-backed president of Panama.
The Reagan administration's support for the Contras continued to stir controversy well into the 1990s. In August 1996, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb published a series titled Dark Alliance, linking the origins of crack cocaine in California (largely aimed at its African-American population) to the CIA-Contra alliance. Freedom of Information Act inquiries by the National Security Archive and other investigators unearthed a number of documents showing that White House officials, including Oliver North, knew about and supported using money raised via drug trafficking to fund the Contras. Sen. John Kerry's report in 1988 led to the same conclusions. However, the Justice Department denied the allegations, and the mainstream US media downplayed them.
The Contra war unfolded differently in the northern and southern zones of Nicaragua. Contras based in Costa Rica operated on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, which is sparsely populated by indigenous groups including the Miskito, Sumo, Rama, Garifuna, and Mestizo. Unlike Spanish-speaking western Nicaragua, the Atlantic Coast is predominantly English-speaking and was largely ignored by the Somoza regime. The costeños did not participate in the uprising against Somoza and viewed Sandinismo with suspicion from the outset.
The Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with the Sandinistas was extremely complex. Initially, the Church was committed to supporting the Somoza regime. The Somoza dynasty was willing to secure the Church a prominent place in society as long as it did not attempt to subvert the authority of the regime. Under the constitution of 1950 the Roman Catholic Church was recognized as the official religion and church-run schools flourished. It was not until the late 1970s that the Church began to speak out against the corruption and human rights abuses that characterized the Somoza regime.
The Catholic hierarchy initially disapproved of the Sandinistas' revolutionary struggle against the Somoza dynasty. In fact, the revolutionaries were perceived as proponents of “godless communism” that posed a threat to the traditionally privileged place that the Church occupied within Nicaraguan society. Nevertheless, the increasing corruption and repression characterizing the Somoza rule and the likelihood that the Sandinistas would emerge victorious ultimately influenced Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo to declare formal support for the Sandinistas' armed struggle. Throughout the revolutionary struggle, the Sandinistas enjoyed the grassroots support of clergy who were influenced by the reforming zeal of Vatican II and dedicated to a “preferential option for the poor” (for comparison, see liberation theology). Numerous Christian base communities (CEBs) were created in which lower level clergy and laity took part in consciousness raising initiatives to educate the peasants about the institutionalized violence they were suffering from. Some priests took a more active role in supporting the revolutionary struggle. For example, Father Gaspar García Laviana took up arms and became a member of FSLN.
Soon after the Sandinistas assumed power, the hierarchy began to oppose the Sandinistas government. The Archbishop was a vocal source of domestic opposition. The hierarchy was alleged to be motivated by fear of the emergence of the 'popular church' which challenged their centralized authority. The hierarchy also opposed social reforms implemented by the Sandinistas to aid the poor, allegedly because they saw it as a threat to their traditionally privileged position within society.
In response to this perceived opposition, the Sandinistas shut down the church-run Radio Católica radio station on multiple occasions.
The Sandinistas' relationship with the Roman Catholic Church deteriorated as the Contra War dragged on. The hierarchy refused to speak out against the counterrevolutionary activities of the contras and failed to denounce American military aid. State media accused the Catholic Church of being reactionary and supporting the Contras. According to former President Ortega, "The conflict with the church was strong, and it costs us, but I don't think it was our fault… …There were so many people being wounded every day, so many people dying, and it was hard for us to understand the position of the church hierarchy in refusing to condemn the contras." The hierarchy-state tensions were brought to the forefront with Pope John Paul II 1983 visit to Nicaragua. Hostility to the Catholic Church became so great that at one point, FSLN militants shouted down Pope John Paul II as he tried to say Mass. Therefore, while the activities of the 'popular church' contributed to the success of the Sandinista revolution, the hierarchy’s opposition was a major factor in the downfall of the revolutionary government.
TIME magazine in 1983 published allegations of human rights violations in an article which stated that "According to Nicaragua's Permanent Commission on Human Rights, the regime detains several hundred people a month; about half of them are eventually released, but the rest simply disappear." TIME also interviewed a former deputy chief of Nicaraguan military counterintelligence, who stated that he had fled Nicaragua after being ordered to eliminate 800 Miskito prisoners and make it look like as if they had died in combat. Another article described Sandinista neighbourhood "Defense Committees", modeled on similar Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which according to critics were used unleash mobs on anyone who is labeled a counterrevolutionary. Nicaragua's only opposition newspaper, La Prensa, was subject to strict censorship. That newspaper's editors are forbidden to print anything negative about the Sandinistas either at home or abroad.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank, in a 1983 report alleged various human rights violations, including censorship, creating a neighborhood system which encouraged spying and reporting by neighbors, torture by state security forces, thousands of political prisoners, assassinations both inside and outside Nicaragua, and that a former Sandinista Intelligence officer has stated that 5,000 were killed in the early months of Sandinsta rule.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in a 1981 report found evidence for mass executions in the period following the revolution. It stated "In the Commission’s view, while the government of Nicaragua clearly intended to respect the lives of all those defeated in the civil war. During the weeks immediately subsequent to the Revolutionary triumph, when the government was not in effective control, illegal executions took place which violated the right to life, and these acts have not been investigated and the persons responsible have not been punished. The IACHR also stated that: "The Commission is of the view that the new regime did not have, and does not now have, a policy of violating the right to life of political enemies, including among the latter the former guardsmen of the Government of General Somoza, whom a large sector of the population of Nicaragua held responsible for serious human rights violations during the former regime; proof of the foregoing is the abolition of the death penalty and the high number of former guardsmen who were prisoners and brought to trial for crimes that constituted violations of human rights."
A 1983 report from the same source documented allegations of human rights violations against the Miskito Indians, which were alleged to have taken place after opposition forces (the Contras) infiltrated a Miskito village in order to launch attacks against government soldiers, and as part of a subsequent forced relocation program. Allegations included arbitrary imprisonment without trial, "disappearances" of such prisoners, forced relocations, and destruction of property.
The 1991 annual report by the same organization, "In September 1990, the Commission was informed of the discovery of common graves in Nicaragua, especially in areas where fighting had occurred. The information was provided by the Nicaraguan Pro Human Rights Association, which had received its first complaint in June 1990. By December 1991, that Association had received reports of 60 common graves and had investigated 15 of them. While most of the graves seem to be the result of summary executions by members of the Sandinista People's Army or the State Security, some contain the bodies of individuals executed by the Nicaraguan Resistance."
The 1992 annual report by the same organization contains details of mass graves and investigations which suggest that mass executions had been carried out. One such grave contained 75 corpses of peasants who were believed to have been executed in 1984 by government security forces pretending to be members of the contras. Another grave was also found in the town of Quininowas which contained six corpses, believed to be an entire family killed by government forces when the town was invaded. A further 72 graves were reported as being found, containing bodies of people, the majority of whom were believed to have been executed by agents of the state and some also by the contras.
R. J. Rummel in his 1997 book Statistics of Democide lists many sources and estimates regarding how many were killed during the Sandinista government. Rummel's own estimate, based on those sources, is that the Sandinistas were responsible for 5,000 non-battle related deaths.
A 2004 article in the Washington-based peer-reviewed academic journal Demokratizatsiya describes many human rights violations, both during and after their period in power, like that Sandinista security forces assassinated more than two hundred resistance commanders who had accepted the terms of the United Nations-brokered peace accords and had laid down their arms to join the democratic process.
The issue of human rights also became highly politicised at this time as human rights is claimed to be a key component of propaganda created by the Sandinistas and the Reagan administration to help legitimise its policies in the region. The Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA) in its Newsletter stated in 1985 that: "The hostility with which the Nicaraguan government is viewed by the Reagan administration is an unfortunate development. Even more unfortunate is the expression of that hostility in the destabilization campaign developed by the US administration... An important aspect of this campaign is misinformation and frequent allegations of serious human rights violations by the Nicaraguan authorities." Among the accusations in the Heritage Foundation report and the Demokratizatsiya article are references to alleged policies of religious persecution, particularly anti-semitism. The ICCHRLA in its newsletter stated that: "From time to time the current U.S. administration, and private organizations sympathetic to it, have made serious and extensive allegations of religious persecution in Nicaragua. Colleague churches in the United States undertook onsite investigation of these charges in 1984. In their report, the delegation organized by the Division of Overseas Ministries of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States concluded that there is 'no basis for the charge of systematic religious persecution'. The delegation 'considers this issue to be a device being used to justify aggressive opposition to the present Nicaraguan government.'" On the other hand, some elements of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, among them Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, strongly criticized the Sandinistas. The Archbishop stated "The government wants a church that is aligned with the Marxist-Leninist regime." The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights states that: "Although it is true that much of the friction between the Government and the churches arises from positions that are directly or indirectly linked to the political situation of the country, it is also true that statements by high government officials, official press statements, and the actions of groups under the control of the Government have gone beyond the limits within which political discussions should take place and have become obstacles to certain specifically religious activities."
Human Rights Watch also stated in its 1989 report on Nicaragua that: "Under the Reagan administration, U.S. policy toward Nicaragua's Sandinista government was marked by constant hostility. This hostility yielded, among other things, an inordinate amount of publicity about human rights issues. Almost invariably, U.S. pronouncements on human rights exaggerated and distorted the real human rights violations of the Sandinista regime, and exculpated those of the U.S.-supported insurgents, known as the contras.
In 1987 a report was published by the UK based NGO Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR, now known as "Progressio"), a human rights organization which identifies itself with Liberation theology. The Progressio website states: "Throughout its history, the organisation has sought to influence church and state, most notably to support liberation struggles, grassroots developments and to strengthen a moral voice against human rights abuses. ... CIIR's then education department supported the progressive elements of the church in various liberation and human rights struggles in Central America, southern Africa and Asia. CIIR published booklets on liberation theology and promoted progressive church speakers." The report, "Right to Survive - Human Rights in Nicaragua", discussed the politicisation of the human rights issue: "The Reagan administration, with scant regard for the truth, has made a concerted effort to paint as evil a picture as possible of Nicaragua, describing it as a 'totalitarian dungeon'. Supporters of the Sandinistas ... have argued that Nicaragua has a good record of human rights compared with other Central American countries and have compared Nicaragua with other countries at war." The CIIR report refers to estimates made by the NGO Americas Watch which count the number of non-battle related deaths and disappearances for which the government was responsible up to the year 1986 as "close to 300". According to the CIIR report, Amnesty International and Americas Watch stated that there is no evidence that the use of torture was sanctioned by the Nicaraguan authorities, although prisoners reported the use of conditions of detention and interrogation techniques that could be described as psychological torture. The Red Cross made repeated requests to be given access to prisoners held in state security detention centers, but were refused. The CIIR was critical of the Permanent Commission on Human Rights (PCHR or CPDH in Spanish), claiming that the organisation had a tendency to immediately publish accusations against the government without first establishing a factual basis for the allegations. The CIIR report also questioned the independence of the Permanent Commission on Human Rights, referring to an article in the Washington Post which claims that the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization funded by the US government, allocated a concession of US$50,000 for assistance in the translation and distribution outside Nicaragua of its monthly report, and that these funds were administered by Prodemca, a US-based organization which later published full-page adverisments in the Washington Post and New York Times supporting military aid to the Contras. The Permanent Commission denies that it received any money which it claims was instead used by others for translating and distributing their monthly reports in other nations.
The Nicaraguan based magazine Revista Envio, which describes its stance as one of "critical support for the Sandinistas", refers to the report: "The CPDH: Can It Be Trusted?" written by Scottish lawyer Paul Laverty. In the report, Laverty observes that: "The entire board of directors [of the Permanent Commission], are members of or closely identify with the 'Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinating Committee' (Coordinadora), an alliance of the more rightwing parties and COSEP, the business organization." He goes on to express concern about CPDH's alleged tendency to provide relatively few names and other details in connection with alleged violations. "According to the 11 monthly bulletins of 1987 (July being the only month without an issue), the CPDH claims to have received information on 1,236 abuses of all types. However, of those cases, only 144 names are provided. The majority of those 144 cases give dates and places of alleged incidents, but not all. This means that only in 11.65% of its cases is there the minimal detail provided to identify the person, place, date, incident and perpetrator of the abuse.
On the other hand, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights states: "During its on-site observation in 1978 under the Government of General Somoza, the Permanent Commission on Human Rights in Nicaragua, (CPDH) gave the Commission notable assistance, which certainly helped it to prepare its report promptly and correctly." and in 1980 "It cannot be denied that the CPDH continues to play an important role in the protection of human rights, and that a good number of people who consider that their human rights have been ignored by the Government are constantly coming to it." The IACHR also continued to meet with representatives of the Permanent Commission and report their assessments in later years.
The Heritage Foundation stated that: "While elements of the Somoza National Guard tortured political opponents, they did not employ psychological torture." The International Commission of Jurists stated that under the Somoza regime cruel physical torture was regularly used in the interrogation of political prisoners.
One was supporting the FMLN rebels in El Salvador with safehaven; training; command-and-control headquarters and advice; and weapons, ammunition, and other vital supplies. As evidence was cited captured documents, testimonials of former rebels and Sandinistas, aerial photographs, tracing captured weapons back to Nicaragua, and captured vehicles from Nicaragua smuggling weapons. However El Salvador was in the midst of a Civil War in the period in question and that the US was intervening at the behest of El Salvador against the FMLN guerrillas.
In 1993 an FMLN weapons cache exploded in Managua that was left there from the revolutionary period.
In 1987, due to a stalemate with the Contras, the Esquipulas II treaty was brokered by Costa Rican President Óscar Arias Sánchez. The treaty's provisions included a call for a cease-fire, freedom of expression, and national elections. After the February 26, 1990 elections, the Sandinistas lost and peacefully passed power to the National Opposition Union (UNO), an alliance of 14 opposition parties ranging from the conservative business organization COSEP to Nicaraguan communists. UNO's candidate, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, replaced Daniel Ortega as president of Nicaragua.
Reasons for the Sandinista loss in 1990 are disputed. Defenders of the defeated government assert that Nicaraguans voted for the opposition due to the continuing U.S. economic embargo and potential Contra threat. Opponents claim that Contra warfare had largely died down, and that the Sandinistas had grown increasingly unpopular, particularly due to forced conscription and crackdowns on political freedoms. An important reason, regardless of perspective, was that after a decade of the U.S. backed war and embargo, Nicaragua's economy and infrastructure were badly damaged and the United States promised aid only if the Sandinistas lost. The U.S. also helped keep the rightist factions united so there would not be two strong rightist candidates.
At the personal level, most Nicaraguans voted against the Sandinistas to end a bloody war and food shortages.
After their loss, most of the Sandinista leaders held most of the private property and businesses that had been confiscated and nationalized by the FSLN government. This process became known as the piñata and was tolerated by the new Chamorro government. Ortega also claimed to "rule from below" through groups he controls such as labor unions and student groups. Prominent Sandinistas also created a number of nongovernmental organizations to promote their ideas and social goals.
Daniel Ortega remained the head of the FSLN, but his brother Humberto resigned from the party and remained at the head of the Sandinista Army, becoming a close confidante and supporter of Chamorro. The party also experienced a number of internal divisions, with prominent Sandinistas such as Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez resigning to protest what they described as heavy-handed domination of the party by Daniel Ortega. Ramírez also founded a separate political party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS); his faction came to be known as the renovistas, who favor a more social democratic approach than the orthodoxos, or hardliners. In the 1996 Nicaraguan election, Ortega and Ramírez both campaigned unsuccessfully as presidential candidates on behalf of their respective parties, with Ortega receiving 43% of the vote while Arnoldo Alemán of the Constitutional Liberal Party received 51%. The Sandinistas won second place in the congressional elections, with 36 of 93 seats.
Daniel Ortega was re-elected as leader of the FSLN in 1998. Municipal elections in November 2000 saw a strong Sandinista vote, especially in urban areas, and former Tourism Minister Herty Lewites was elected mayor of Managua. This significant result led to expectations of a close race in the presidential elections scheduled for November 2001. Daniel Ortega and Enrique Bolaños of the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) ran neck-and-neck in the polls for much of the campaign, but in the end the PLC won a clear victory. The results of these elections were that the FSLN won 42.6% of the vote for parliament (versus 52.6% for the PLC), giving them 41 out of the 92 seats in the National Assembly (versus 48 for the PLC). In the presidential race, Ortega lost to Bolaños 46.3% to 53.6%.
Daniel Ortega was once again re-elected as leader of the FSLN in March 2002 and re-elected as president of Nicaragua in November 2006.
The FSLN also won 38 seats in the congressional elections, becoming the party with the largest representation in parliament. The split in the Constitutionalist Liberal Party helped to allow the FSLN to become the largest party in Congress, however it should be noted that the Sandinista vote had a minuscule split between the FSLN and MRS.
The "Zero Hunger Program," which aims to reduce poverty in the rural areas over a five-year period, was inaugurated by President Daniel Ortega and other members of his administration in the northern department of Jinotega. The program was designed to achieve the first objective of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, "to eradicate extreme poverty and reduce hunger to zero."
"Zero Hunger" with its budget of US$150 million plans to deliver a US$2,000 bond or voucher to 75,000 rural families between 2007 and 2012. The voucher will consist of the delivery of a pregnant cow and a pregnant sow, five chickens and a rooster, seeds, fruit- bearing plants and plants for reforestation. The project's short-term objective is to have each rural family capable of producing enough milk, meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables and cereals to cover its basic needs while its medium range objective is to establish local markets and export certain products.
The families that benefit from the project will be required to pay back 20 percent of the amount that they receive in order to create a rural fund that will guarantee the continuity of the program. NGOs and representatives from each community will be in charge of managing the project.
The flag of the FSLN consists of an upper half in red, a lower half in black, and the letters F S L N in white. It is a modified version of the flag Sandino used in the 1930s, during the war against the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua which consisted of two vertical stripes, equally in size, one red and the other black with a skull (like the traditional Jolly Roger flag). These colors came from the Mexican anarchist movements that Sandino got involved with during his stay in Mexico in the early 1920s.
In recent times, there has been a dispute between the FSLN and the dissident Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) about the use of the red and black flag in public activities. Despite the fact that the MRS has its own flag (orange with a silhouette of Sandino's hat in black), they also use the red and black flag in honor of Sandino's legacy. They state that the red and black flag is a symbol of Sandinismo as a whole, not only of the FSLN party.
Since the conflict with Nicaragua in the 1980s, variations of the term "Sandinista" are now sometimes used in the United States to refer to fanatical supporters of a certain cause. In the Spanish language, the suffix "-ista" is used to indicate a predilection towards the root. (It is the equivalent of "-ist" in English, as in "idealist," "Calvinist" or "communist.") For example "fashionistas" for those excessively obsessed with fashion. Also, Bill and Hillary Clinton supporters, or people in the Clintons' political circle, are sometimes referred to as "Clintonistas" by their opponents. Another example would be "Somocistas", supporters of former dictator Anastasio Somoza. Likewise in the UK the term "Guardianista" was coined by right-wing journalist Richard Littlejohn as a derogatory term for middle class, "politically correct" liberals who are identified as being typical readers of The Guardian.
As a reaction to an anti-Sandinista statement by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her proposal to ban the use of the word itself, punk rock group The Clash used the title Sandinista! for their 1980 triple album. The album contains the song "Washington Bullets" which references the Sandinistas and other events and groups involved in Latin American history, starting from 1959.
In 2007, the popular Puerto Rican Reggaeton/Rap band Calle 13 mentioned the Sandinista movement in their song "Llegale a mi guarida". The lyrics claimed: "Respeto a Nicaragua y a la lucha sandinista" ("I respect Nicaragua and the Sandinista struggle").