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Communist Era

Backdrop to the Revolution

The Inception of Sandinismo

Following the end of the Spanish colonial rule in 1821, Nicaragua became part of the Mexican Empire and subsequently, part of the Federal Republic of Central America.1 It earned the status as an independent republic in 1838. Nicaraguan political scene became dominated by a rivalry between Conservative and Liberal forces, accompanied by political volatility and violence. Out of this political context stemmed key circumstances which prompted the inception of leftist political force and which continue to undergird the popularity of leftist politics among Nicaraguan population.

An indispensable actor in the early Nicaraguan political setting was the United States. The U.S. regarded the Central American region as its "backyard" which required political attention and, if necessary, intervention. The issue of a canal that would connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean stirred up diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and the liberal regime of José Santos Zelaya. The conflict prompted the U.S. to lend support to the domestic conservative forces that succeeded in disposing Zelaya in 1909. Nicaragua was left in political disarray. After a series of failed attempts to restore political stability Adolfo Diaz, propped up by the U.S., seized control of the country in 1912.

The Conservative rule of Adolfo Diaz, from 1912 to 1928, had a pronounced influence on the growth of radical opposition against established authorities and distrust toward their benefactor, the United States. The regime was immediately challenged by a Liberal insurrection. Confronted with a great deal of political volatility and violence, Diaz invited the U.S. Marines to launch an occupation of the country from 1912 to 1933.

Among the detractors of the Conservative regime was Augusto César Sandino, who led the Army for the Defence of Nicaraguan Sovereign from 1927 to 1933.2 Using guerrilla tactics, they struggled against tyranny and U.S. intervention in Nicaraguan affairs. Sandino came to symbolise the potency of Nicaraguan nationalism and was inspiration to the radical revolutionaries of the FSLN. His legacy, thought and tactics served as a model for the FSLN's successful insurrection in 1979 and their revolutionary programme.3 In 1934 Sandino was executed by the National Guard, then commanded by Anastasio Somoza Garcia who seized power two years later.

The Somoza Dynasty and the Roots of the Revolution

Somoza's dynasty ruled Nicaragua for 44 years.4 After the death of Anastasio Somoza Garcia the power was transferred to his sons Luis Somoza Debayle and Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Anastasio Somoza's regime was representative of the type of government Sandino had fought against. As a commander of the National Guard, the U.S.-trained police force, he seized power through a military coup and in 1937 he assumed presidency through a rigged election.

The Somoza dictatorship was characterised by corruptive political practices and suppression of political plurality. He used his political position to manipulate the institutional framework for his personal interests of political clout and financial fortunes. He made amendments to the constitution to consolidate power into his own hands and managed to rule either directly or indirectly through puppet presidents until his death in 1956. He derived his power from ‘the ownership or control of large portions of the Nicaraguan economy, the military support of the National Guard, and his acceptance and support from the United States.'5

In the economic domain, Somoza implemented reforms which were directed at diversifying Nicaragua's export sector. He initiated an intensive period of post-war capitalist development with five primary export products and with numerous commercial markets. During the Somoza hereditary rule, Nicaragua sustained rates of growth superior to those of the rest of Latin America.6 Although the aggregate economic figures suggest economic progress, the beneficiaries of growth were limited to Somoza, his family and close associates, through ownership of businesses and large areas of land. In the countryside, concentration of land ownership in the hands of large landowners led to the contraction of the peasantry, urban migration, and a marked increase in inequality. Three-quarters of Managua's households in 1969 lived on less than $100 a month.7

After the assassination of Anastasio Somoza in 1956, the presidency was transferred to his son Luis Somoza Debayle, who relaxed some of the political and civic restrictions. In 1967 Anastasio Somoza Debayle, after the early death of his brother, took over the presidency but also maintained the position as the director of the National Guard, giving him absolute political and military control over Nicaragua. His rule saw the escalation of repression and corruption which alienated broad sector of society and triggered the development of solid political and military opposition.

Nicaragua was struck by a powerful earthquake on December 23, 1972, inflicting enormous human, physical and economic destruction. Casualties totalled some 10,000, 50,000 families were left homeless, and 80 per cent of the capital's commercial buildings were left in ruins.8 Facing this enormous national calamity, the response of the authorities generated unrest among Nicaraguans and invited condemnation from the international community. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the National Guard took part of the looting of business establishments in the capital. Furthermore, the reconstruction efforts were tainted by corruption and gross mismanagement of international relief aid.

The defeat of the Somoza dictatorship

In the climate of repression, compounded by corruption scandals, disparate opposition groups became more active and began to garner popular support. The success of the Cuban revolution further propelled the momentum of increased oppositional activities.9 The opposition groups agreed on the necessity of political change, but differed over the appropriate means and ends. On the side of the reformists, whose objective was to reform the corrupt and repressive state apparatus, were the Nicaraguan Socialist Christian Party (PSCN), the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN), and the Democratic Union of Liberation (UDEL).10 The UDEL, led by a renown journalist and publisher Pedro Chamorro, became particularly prominent owing to the wealth and high social position of its members.11

On the opposite pole was the radical Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) which sought to overturn the established system by means of prolonged armed struggle.12 Elements of the FSLN originated in a group of student activists in the late 1950s. In 1961 the three Marxism-inspired members, Carlos Fonseca, Silvio Mayorga and Tomás Borge, formally founded the FSLN in opposition to the ruling dynasty. They named the organisation after the nationalist hero Augusto C. Sandino and were dedicated to arrive at social justice and national self-determination for Nicaragua.

In the 1960s, the non-revolutionary opposition was much stronger and more influential than the FSLN, with broader appeal, more prominent leaders, and the largest-circulation daily newspaper in the country.13 Yet, with the development of its identity and support base, the strength of the Sandinistas began to grow rapidly in the 1970s.14 The FSLN adopted the foco strategy, i.e. rural guerrilla warfare inducing a nationwide insurrection, to defeat the regime's security forces. By the early 1970s, the group had gained enough support from workers, peasants and students groups to launch limited military initiatives.

In 1974 the Sandinistas conducted a successful kidnapping of a group of elites. Besides the release of many imprisoned dissidents, the act renewed the prestige of the FSLN among its key supporters and drew the attention of other sectors of society.15 It also captures the attention of the international community. With domestic support and the endorsement of regional actors (Cuba, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Panama) the FSLN became the vanguard of the revolution.

The regime responded with a counterinsurgency campaign and a declaration of a state of emergency and martial law. Arbitrary arrest, torture, and state murder were ruinous to the organised opposition and its constituent base. In September 1977 the state of emergency decree was rescinded under immense international pressure. To deflate both domestic and international pressures, particularly from the Carter administration, Somoza initiated a policy of appeasement. Given the virtual wipe-out of the radical elements of the opposition, Somoza could enter into negotiations with the moderate groups.16

The FSLN was emaciated but not defunct. In October 1977 Sandinista guerrillas launched military actions in order to spark a countrywide armed insurrection. They attacked several cities while calling for people to take to the streets with arms in support of the revolution. The political consequences of this campaign were profound. The negotiations between Somoza and the moderate UDEL were halted and the revolutionary streak led by the FSLN won over broad sections of society. Another significant incident was the assassination of the popular UDEL leader Pedro Chamorro. The murder, blamed on Somoza, triggered a widespread insurrection.

In August 1978 the guerrillas launched an invasion of the National Palace. Taking hostage of 1,500 government officials earned the Sandinistas $5,000,000 and the release of nearly 70 political prisoners. This tactic received a positive reaction from Nicaraguans and prompted a rapid mass mobilisation.17

Foreign mediators tried to coordinate a nonviolent transfer of power but to no avail. By 1978 regional actors and many Nicaraguan business leaders and politicians had taken the side of the Sandinistas, despite the unease about their leftist political orientation. In May the FSLN launched a major offensive, forcing Somoza to flee into exile and dissolving the National Guard. Under severe guerrilla pressure and regional and international isolation, Somoza resigned and in July 19, 1979 the Sandinistas officially seized power.

Revolutionary Alliance and Ideology

The composition of the alliance which carried through the mass insurrection is indicative of the ideological substance of the FSLN, and explanatory of its subsequent political programme. The broad-based alliance contains a potential conflict over the means and ends of the revolutionary process. At the same time, the cooperative efforts between the disparate anti-Somoza groups suggest that the ends and means of the revolution derived from a broader base than strictly Marxist-Leninism.

By focusing on the leadership of the FSLN, the notion of Marxist revolution can be applied to the developments in Nicaragua. This type of revolution is premised on a fundamental conflict between the propertied class and the labourers, thus rendering an alliance between the two groups inappropriate for the ultimate goal of classless society. On the contrary, stressing the multi-class character of the revolutionary forces makes the notion of national liberation relevant. The Somoza regime, which incurred popular outrage, was overthrown to liberate the nation from repressive and political system without implications for sweeping socio-economic changes. Rather than pursuing the narrow Marxist ideals, the Sandinistas embraced a multifaceted ideology which enabled to mobilise a majority of the population. The insurrection started out as ‘a revolution of workers, peasants, semi-proletarians, petty bourgeois youth, the poor of country and city, but [...] was joined shortly before 1979 by important sectors of the old conservative agrarian and commercial bourgeoisie who were opposed to Somoza.'18 Neither the working class not the peasantry participated as unified classes in the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. Factory closedowns were instigated by factory owners, business leaders, or public employees. Equally, youths from all social origins participated in the revolutionary struggle.19

Thus the revolutionary strategy brought together Marxist and non-Marxist groups that were opposed to the status quo.20 It is a matter of debate however, if the appeal to the shared nationalist sentiment was used as a political tool by the Sandinistas or if Marxist-Leninism was the defining element of their ideology.21

In essence, the FSLN's ideology was a complicated configuration of three ingredients. The Leninist interpretation of Marxist, the class-conscious thought and revolutionary practice of Augusto César Sandino, and the inspiration of the successful Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara. This configuration enabled the FSLN and its critics to emphasise some elements over others for tactical purposes. The connection to Sandino was stressed by the Sandinistas, while Marxist-Leninism and the connections to the USSR and Cuba were stressed by their critics.22

Marxist-Leninist Leanings

Marxist philosophy grants the interests of the labouring class a fundamental priority and posits the capitalist forces as the impediment to achieving these interests. The FSLN's goals of achieving social justice for the working class and the peasantry, and the hostility toward the capitalist stronghold, the United States, indicate penchant for Marxist-Leninism.23

Carlos Fonseca, who was the central ideological and strategic leader of the revolution,24 frequently expressed his communist thinking. He was the representative of the radical anti-capitalist and popular dynamic of the revolution. Fonseca propounded a class-based analysis of Nicaraguan society and politics:

[...] our goal is to bring to an end a society divided into exploiters and exploited, a society divided into oppressors and oppressed...National independence and the defeat of foreign imperialism are prerequisites for the building of a new world...In our new world, we are guided by the noble principles developed by Karl Marx. Modern history demonstrates that the principles of Marxism are the compass that orients the most resolute defenders of the poor, of the abused, of oppressed humanity.25

The influence of Communism was also present in the inspiration that the FSLN took from the Cuban revolution and the ties that were quickly formed between the two nations. Cuba took after the Soviet-bloc countries of eastern Europe and declared itself Communist. From Fonseca's proclamations, such as ‘we are the fidelista generation' and Nicaragua will be ‘the second free territory of the Americas'26, one can discern the prospect of radicalisation of policies in the Communist direction. As opposed to claims that the FSLN shifted toward multiclass and nonsocialist model, Zimmermann argues that the Cuban example continued to influence the direction of the revolution.27

Foreign Relations

Relations with the U.S.

The inception, development and demise of the Sandinista leftist programme is closely tied up with U.S. interests and conduct in Nicaragua.28 Since the late 19th century the nation has been subjected to the U.S. political and economic domination.29 A year after Nicaragua's independence, the U.S. introduced the Monroe doctrine, which laid claim to the hegemony over Latin America.30 The doctrine spawned a long string of interventions, of which the most ludicrous, yet characteristic of U.S. undertakings in Nicaragua, was the presidency of an American filibuster William Walker. In 1856 he managed to capitalise on the political rivalry between the Liberal party and the Conservative party, seized the presidency and effectively turned Nicaragua into a state of the United States.31 American troops re-entered Nicaragua in 1894, 1869, 1898, 1899, 1907, 1910 and 1912.32 By the 20th century the U.S. had dispensed with the overtly imperialist strategy and began to form close ties to local elites to protect its interests. The recurrent pattern of direct or indirect interventions epitomises the overbearing disposition that still stirs the nationalist sentiment and anti-U.S. bias among Nicaraguans and impedes development of courteous and cordial relations.

Despite the popular distrust of the U.S. and the FSLN's ideological antipathy to the greatest capitalist stronghold, the Sandinistas did not break relations offhand. The revolutionary leadership recognised the importance of avoiding antagonising the U.S. and maintaining the prospect of reaching accommodation with the Carter administration (1977-1981). Their 1978 program articulates a softer position on the U.S., omitting reference to imperialism and support for regional national liberation movements and anti-imperialist movement in other Third World countries.33 Once in power, the Sandinistas modelled their political and economic programmes to court the U.S. favour by way of allowing space for political plurality and the private sector.34 Since at least early 1981, if not earlier, the Sandinistas have indicated a willingness to make concessions to the U.S. regarding their foreign policy (specifically, their support for other Central American revolutionaries and their military ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union) in exchange for Washington's acceptance of their revolution.35

Sources of U.S. Hostility

The U.S. disfavour and hostility toward the revolutionary regime originates in ideological and geopolitical considerations.36 Contextualisation of the revolutionary change assist at explaining U.S. foreign policy toward Nicaragua. The revolutionary political change and progressive policies of the Sandinistas coincided with the escalation of the superpower rivalry. Bipolarity, the distribution of power between the liberal capitalist West and the socialist East, was the defining feature of the Cold War era. The capitalist-communist spectrum labelled political regimes across the globe and, as a critical factor for the fortunes of Nicaraguan revolutionaries, being labelled communist meant being allied with the Soviet bloc and thus inviting belligerent U.S. foreign policy.37

More than ten countries fell to Communism by 1979, thus substantiating the popular domino theory and justifying the containment imperative.38 The loss of Cuba to Communism in 1959 set off alarm bells at Washington. The revolutionary change of regime twenty years later in Nicaragua was thus interpreted as allowing "another Cuba". The appropriate action to address the evolving situation in Nicaragua divided opinions between those in favour of containing further departure toward communism and those who opted for a quick fix of toppling the regime.39 More immediate sources of friction were the Sandinista military build-up and their alleged support for the guerrillas in El Salvador.40

Emergence of Counterrevolutionaries

In the wake of the revolutionary regime change, those in opposition to the rule began launching sabotage activities, so that the Sandinistas were forced on the defensive. Sandinistas' policies created dissatisfaction among the business, religious and feudal classes. The heterogenous group included Nicaraguan exiles, former members of the National Guard and the Somoza regime, ex-Sandinista soldiers and dissidents, peasants, farmers, some Protestant evangelicals and Catholics.

In 1981 the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) was formed, which was a political-military alliance and became the leading faction of the counterrevolutionaries, also known as the contras. The opposition group was backed by Honduras and the U.S. In 1982 another armed anti-Sandinista group was formed, Anti-Sandinista Democratic Alliance (ARDE), led by former Sandinista Edén Pastora that operated out of Costa Rica. In addition, the domestic political front, comprised of diverse political movements and parties, charged the FSLN for departing from the initial ideals of liberty, democracy and harmony.41In 1985 opposition groups united under the umbrella organisation, the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO).

The Carter Administration: Potential for Reconciliation

President Carter's initial objectives in Nicaragua were to cultivate political pluralism and Cold War neutrality. His advocacy of human rights led him to deplore the repressive political practice of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, though he was not for the radical ousting of the regime.42 When Carter realised that the imminent change of regime was irreversible, his desired result became to control the establishment of a friendly regime that would exclude the radical segment of the revolutionaries and maintain the role of the National Guard. Desisting from domineering disposition, instead the administration sought to sustain courteous relations by using soft rhetoric and fostering political centre.43 It also kept the option of economic aid available for the Sandinistas, provided they embrace Western-style economic principles.44

The Reagan Administration: Escalation of Tensions

Reagan entered the office on a platform deeply hostile to the Sandinistas and with staff who had contacts to the Somocista exile groups.45 The Reagan doctrine posits the ‘rollback' of Communist influence, achieved in part through aid to resistance movements, as the crux of his foreign policy. In line with this Cold War diplomacy, the premise of his Nicaraguan policy was the necessary displacement of the revolutionary government.

Reagan initiated a multifaceted assault on the Sandinista regime. In the economic sphere, the administration started with restricting bilateral trade. For instance, in 1982 it reduced sugar imports, a key export article for Nicaragua, by 90 per cent. In May 1985 the economic stranglehold climaxed with total trade embargo.46 Further, in 1981 the U.S. began to systematically pressed international financial institutions to cut off loans to Nicaragua.47 In spite of Pentagon's objection to direct military action in Nicaragua, Reagan opted for covert war. In November 1981, the US allocated $19,000,000 for covert activities against the Sandinista regime, yet the figure multiplied over the subsequent years.48 Reagan threatened Nicaragua with retaliation were they obtain advanced weaponry, thus preventing Sandinistas from military superiority over the contras.49

Relations with the Socialist Bloc

Two months after the revolutionary takeover, the USSR and the FSLN began to actively seek rapprochement. The Sandinistas showed solidarity with the Soviets in international affairs. They adapted their diplomatic position according to Soviet interests on occasions such as the Polish resistance movement Solidarity and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.50 The two countries were also brought closer through party-level contacts. Due to the political strings of the U.S. loan package, aid agreements with the USSR were signed that included party-to-party agreements for contacts between the FSLN and the Communist Party of Soviet Union.51

The FSLN and the CPSU cultivated close diplomatic contacts through regular meetings between various government agencies.52 The Sandinistas also got involved in all major international communist front organisations.53 Nicaraguan mass youth, women's and labour organisations were linked up with the Soviet-sponsored international bodies.54 There was also cooperation ‘in the fields of science, education, public health, art, mass media, sport and tourism.'55

From 1980 to 1984 bilateral trade increased dramatically. The USSR offered trade credits and assistance in developing industries and major construction projects, such as hydroelectric plants and waterway systems. From 1980 to 1983 Soviet exports to Nicaragua increased from 0.1 million to 42.4 million roubles, and Nicaraguan export to the USSR from 5.5 to 9.5 million roubles. Between 1979 and December 1983, the trade credits for Nicaraguan exports amounted to $215.9 million. Soviet donations of educational, health and food assistance began arriving shortly after the FSLN victory. The Soviets made significant contributions to the literacy campaign, provided medical donations, and contributed large quantities of food. By 1985 Nicaraguan economy was dependent on Soviet oil, had become an observer at the Council for Economic Mutual Assistance and established a joint Commission on Cooperation in Economics, Trade, Science, and Technology.56 Economic assistance totals for 1979-83 for eleven Communist states were (in millions), in rank order: USSR $443.7, Cuba $286, Bulgaria $232.5, the GDR $103.25, Czechoslovakia $75, Yugoslavia $40, the DPRK $31, and Hungary $5.57

Military Build-up

Forced into a defensive by domestic and foreign opposition forces, the Sandinistas struggled to protect and consolidate their revolutionary gains. Owing to military aid from the Socialist bloc, the Sandinistas managed a hefty military build-up, quadrupling their armed force in size and thus making it the largest force in Central America by 1982.58

The manifest military build-up created regional military imbalance, thus generating perceptions of threat, and by extension, preparations for worst-case scenarios. The Reagan administration reinforced the escalation of tensions by promulgating the assumption that the Sandinistas were not militarily challenged in the first years in power, thus making their military build-up illegitimate. However, there is evidence to prove that counterrevolutionaries posed an immediate threat to the new authority. As early as July 1979 ex-National Guards began to mobilise and launch raids. By 1982 the Sandinistas confronted the regular incursions of Honduras-based contras as well as the prospect of a conventional war with Honduras or a direct U.S. intervention. 59

In the face of this predicament the FSLN was pressured to turn to the Socialist bloc for military assistance. The latter was willing to provide supplies on favourable terms.60 Soviet military materiel reached the Sandinista guerrillas already during the revolutionary struggle, though indirectly through Cuba. In early 1980s the Soviets and their allies, particularly Cuba and North Korea, began supplying the Sandinistas in growing degrees.61 Cuba had historic reason for sponsoring insurrection in Nicaragua, as Somoza had granted bases to Cuban counterrevolutionaries in the early 1960s.62 Cubans rapidly came to play the key foreign advisory role in military intelligence.63 In the first years of the revolution, Soviet-bloc military imports were not very substantial, for example in 1979 totalling only $5,000,000. Arms imports from 1980 to 1981 however, underwent a marked increase to estimated $39,000,000 to $45,000,000, indicating that the build-up accelerated in response to the increased threat of attack.64

Diplomatic Bargaining

From early 1981 until the fall of the Sandinista rule diverse diplomatic initiatives, bilateral and multilateral, formal and informal, were undertaken to resolve the civil war in Nicaragua,65 The process was complicated by the intrusion of a number of actors and their self-interest. Most forceful was the U.S., which made every effort to prevent any resolve of the conflict which did not take its interests into account. In essence, Washington was not interested in any settlement which would leave the communist regime in power.

The initial U.S. diplomatic request called for a halt of aid to Salvadoran rebels. It was followed in August 1981 by another initiative with additional clause which called for a halt to military build-up and a ban on the importation of sophisticated weapons. In exchange the administration promised nonaggression. Nicaraguans rejected this proposal on grounds of violation of sovereignty. Given the atmosphere of distrust, the U.S. could not be trusted to commit to its promises. Thus, this round of talks was terminated. By November the prospect of peaceful reconciliation had waned. Covert activities against the FSLN were launched and the Secretary of State Alexander Haig refused to rule out an armed intervention.66

The escalation of the conflict in the summer of 1982 invited Venezuela and Mexico to conduct mediation. The Mexican-Venezuela initiative was further expanded in 1983 with the convening of the "Contadora group" which became the most sustained and comprehensive attempt at a joint peace initiative for Central America. It brought together Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama, but excluded the U.S. Again the U.S. tried to block any progress in peace efforts by using diplomatic pressure to control the allies in the region, Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador.

The 1987 Esquipulas Accord signed by Central American presidents ended the conflict through democratisation, national reconciliation, and a halt to support for insurgencies. The leeway provided by this agreement eventually allowed the Sandinistas to negotiate a ceasefire with the contras.67

FSLN and Democracy

Compatibility of Revolutionary Ideals and Democratic Principles

Upon assuming power in 1979 the FSLN embarked on building a democratic political system that would respect political pluralism and civil rights, encourage political participation, and guarantee social justice through economic and social reforms. Since the Sandinista leadership sought to detach itself from the old authoritarian system of government that had dominated Marxist-inspired movements elsewhere, they realised the necessity of incorporating a strong element of popular democracy.68

The Western model of democracy was considered too narrow by the Sandinistas because it omits social and economic rights which are essential to achieve social justice. They sought the ‘social meaning' of democracy which entails ‘social transformation, fundamental restructuring of property and power relations, as well as increased popular participation in the country's political, economic, social, and cultural affairs.'69 Thus, the first phase of democratisation was the improvement of social and economic conditions that would facilitate political participation and mobilisation of marginalised groups. Critics have doubted that economic and social democracy can coexist with procedural democracy.70

Centralisation of Power in the FSLN

At the core, the FSLN was an organisation with a hierarchical organisational structure which became to limit the opportunities for internal debate and discussion. The FSLN failed to democratise party structures, thus undermining the progress toward pluralistic processes.71 The system was composed of three parts: leadership by the National Directorate, a party apparatus, and a host of social organisations which were organically linked to the party.72 When the FSLN seized power it created a large bureaucratic apparatus which progressively extended its control over all state institutions. The state-party overlap eroded the democratic ideas of institutional checks and balances that are ought to prevent abuse of power.73 Long tenures and the absence of institutional control enabled party bureaucrats and leaders to enrich themselves through corruptive practices.74 Furthermore, the bureaucratic structures fragmented into segments which began to compete with each other over political power and resources. The customary political practices were corrupted by power struggles, which became the driving force of the new regime.75

Democratisation of Civil Society

During the early years the process of democratisation was most successful at the level of civil society. New forms of economic and political participation via numerous mass organisations extended the understanding of democratic processes, channelled the needs of marginalised groups, and joined up large groups of people for revolutionary tasks.76 Disparate unions and organisations emerged, made up of neighbours, youth, children, or women. Unionisation of both rural and urban workers expanded markedly, from some 27,020 members in 1979 to some 207,391 members in 1984. The largest mass organisations included the Sandinista women's movement (AMNLAE), the Sandinistas youth organisation, and National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG). The largest were the Sandinista Defence Committees (CDS), set up as local political decision-making bodies concerned with production, distribution, health, education, and militia.77 In the corporative legislative body, the council of state, nearly a third of the seats were allocated to the Sandinista-linked mass organisations. An increasing proportion of legislative proposals originated in the council, despite its relative weakness vis-à-vis the government.

The heyday of the mass organisations had ended by 1985 when the domestic and external pressures eroded the Sandinistas' tolerance to criticism and their capacity to sustain the programmes that had enabled the organisations to increase their participation and influence. The military clashes, political volatility, and economic hardship drained the motivation and resources for organisational activities. Nevertheless, ‘one of the most important legacies of "popular revolutionary democracy" was an increased level of mobilisation and organisation of traditionally marginalised groups in civil society.'78

Democratisation at the National Level

With the focus on economic reconstruction and social transformation democratisation at the national level gained less political attention and resources. The first stage of the process of establishing a new government was the creation of a Council of National Reconstruction (or junta), which was composed of three militants of the FSLN and two opposition members. The legislative body, the council of state, provided representation for the opposition parties. Its democratic value was weakened by its subordination to the junta and the low share of seats, mere twelve out of 47, received by the opposition. Still, the council served as an important forum in which opposition parties and organisations could challenge government policies and programs.79

Nevertheless, the FSLN was committed to electoral democracy and promised to hold early elections. After repeated rescheduling, the elections took place in November 1984. The elections signalled the formal adoption of liberal democratic institutions and an increased emphasis on political parties. It was the first time most Nicaraguans had ever voted in competitive elections and the first time since 1928 that the U.S. did not manage to tamper with the results.80 Six opposition parties ran for seats in the National Assembly. The election results gave the FSLN two-thirds majority in the assembly and the presidency for their leader Daniel Ortega.81

Civil Liberties

The degree of political pluralism and guarantees of civil liberties were constrained by the economic and military aggression by counterrevolutionaries and the U.S. In reaction to the threats the Sandinistas imposed certain restrictions. The tolerance of political pluralism dwindled as the government became highly sensitive to criticism.82 In March 1982 the government, in response to an attack by the contras, decreed the State of Emergency Law which suspended the right of habeas corpus, freedom of travel, freedom of expression, and the right of association.83 The state of emergency was lifted shortly during the 1984 electoral campaign, reimposed again in 1985 and finally rescinded in 1988. These restrictions undermined public confidence in Sandinista commitment to political pluralism and democratic values.

Religion in Revolutionary Nicaragua 84

Religion holds a prominent position in Nicaraguan society, and is therefore deeply implicated in political discourse and mobilisation. A substantial part of the religious community backed the FSLN in the deposition of the Somoza dictatorship, yet the underlying differences in philosophical and practical issues eventually became a source of animosity and rivalry.

Historically, the Catholic Church has been the dominant Christian denomination and, politically, the most active. The Somoza regime maintained uncritical support of the Church until the early 1970s when its increasingly corrupt and repressive mode of governing became more difficult to tolerate.85 Cautiously the Church tried to mediate between the regime and the guerrillas, only offering its endorsement to the Sandinistas a mere six weeks before the final military offensive on 19 July 1979.86 The decades-long cordial relations between the Church and the regime, augmented by the shared hierarchical organisational structure and reactionary dogma, reinforced the Sandinistas' tendency to regard the Church as an impediment to revolutionary change.87

Coinciding with the surfacing of military and political opposition to the dictatorship, the 1960s and 1970s also witnessed turbulence within religious establishments and communities. Alternative ideological currents, such as evangelicalism and liberation theology, gained ground in religious discourse and had politically significant effect of radicalising grassroots movements.88 The radicalised Christians came to realise that their faith condones the violent struggle against the authorities and thus formed a liaison with the FSLN.89

The Marxist-Christian alliance raises questions about their incentives as the atheistic component of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine appears to be fundamentally at odds with Christianity. Yet, the revolution managed to blend religious arguments with Marxist social analysis. Dismissing the claims of shared ideological tenets90, it has been argued by critics that the leadership of the FSLN adhered to a pragmatic view of religion and merely used it as a political tool to garner support. For example, FSLN's ties with local priests provided a channel to establish and organise a rural support system.91

The instrumental use of religion seems to be supported by the development of relations once the Sandinista regime was established. Relationship with the Catholic Church had already deteriorated by the early 1980s. While the progressives endorsed the participation in popular organisations and government projects, conservative Catholics were wary of entering into party-led activities in fear of the loss of its critical role and autonomy.92 The Church became increasingly critical of the FSLN's policies, denouncing the censoring of church publications and broadcasts and partisan draft system. In essence, the conflict embodied a power struggle over the role of the Church and the control of its followers.93 The prime concern with political expediency extended to other Christian denominations. The repression and harassment of conservative and right-wing Christians attests to the politicisation of religion under the FSLN.94 In response, Conservative Pentecostal and historical Protestant pastors founded new anti-Sandinista organisations like CNPEN and the Evangelical alliance.

Women in Revolutionary Nicaragua

The FSLN challenged the traditional position of women in Nicaraguan society.95 The Catholic Church had assigned women the role of wife and mother, thus legitimating patriarchal domination.96 The FSLN recognised gender equality and actively promoted the participation of women in the public sphere. The 1969 political platform promised to establish ‘economic, political, and cultural equality between woman and man.' The Sandinistas began to actively recruit women since the early 1970s and with new policies (e.g. maternity leave and children's daycare centres) women were given the opportunity to get involved in varied roles.97 From 1979 a substantial number of women were appointed to important position in the Sandinista party and the government structures.98

Revolutionary Economic Program and its Implementation

The Sandinista revolutionaries devised an ambitious strategy for transforming the Nicaraguan socio-economic base and over the long haul transcending the capitalist system. Nicaraguan economy was characterised by its external orientation that exclusively profited the domestic and overseas elites, while consigning the lower classes to poverty. The Sandinistas set out to reinsert the economy into the international system on favourable terms and to rearrange domestic property relations, for the fundamental goal of equitable distribution of income and political power.

Mixed Economic Model

The analysis of the Nicaraguan socio-economic weaknesses and the proposed formula for overcoming them suggests a strong influence of Marxist philosophy. The early blueprint for economic strategy of 1969 was markedly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist. It called for land expropriation, nationalisation of the property of the Somoza beneficiaries and American businesses, institution of state enterprises and national economic planning.99 However, in the wake of the revolutionary triumph the far-reaching policies were toned down to a model of mixed economy. Rather than emulating the strategies of other socialist projects, the Sandinista economic strategy reflected classic models of Latin American populism. In order to sustain the broad-based revolutionary coalition, it became critical not to alienate the private sector producers with radical reforms. The economy took a direction that amounts to a long-term adjustment programme with the principal objective of upgrading Nicaragua's standing in the global economy. Thus, the state and the peasant sector were elevated, yet the large private sector was maintained.100 The 1984 presidential inauguration speech, in which Daniel Ortega promised to adhere to the mixed economic system and respect the right to private property, expresses the shift away from the socialist ideals.101 In the course of the Sandinista rule, the socialist hue of the mixed model increasingly lost its force and the capitalist producers became to be trusted with vitalising the economy.

The implementation of the model of development called for the state to keep a tight rein on the macro-economic policy and the commanding heights of the economy. The state sector was to become the principal mechanism of capital formation. To diversify products and markets, the government invested in large-scale projects and offered subsidies and incentives for producers. Nationalisation of banks and foreign trade were to underline the dominance of the state sector in agriculture and industry as well as guarantee the social character of the economy. The state also determined employment policy, wages, and prices. For instance, social wage, that is, services and public subsidies, was used to compensate for the decline in real wages, which were fixed at static levels.

Although half of the economy remained in private sector, in 1981 the government decreed the expropriation of several large firms and restrictions on private sector activities.102 Regulations were imposed on import-export, such as forcing owners to sell their products to the state at a predetermined price and enforcement of strict rules on the import of luxury goods. Even so, the private sector was not strangled to a halt by the state. Economically they continued to do well, retaining their wealth and privileges to a large degree.103 These mechanisms were to achieve sufficient capital formation to reduce dependence on foreign capital and to contribute to equitable social distribution.104 The first revolutionary years saw healthy economic growth rates. While the average growth (in real terms) for Central America was 2 per cent in 1980 and 4 per cent in 1981, in Nicaragua the figure was respectively 10 per cent and 8.9 per cent.105

Land Reform

An indispensable element of the development strategy was the land reform which was to redistribute the land to benefit the peasant sector, revitalise agro-production and achieve food self-sufficiency. 106 The 1969 programme proposed a sweeping land reform, following the principle that ‘the land should belong to those who work it' and encouraging the formation of peasant cooperatives. The land was to be distributed in favour of small producers with guarantees to agricultural credit, market for their production, and technical assistance.107 In line with these proposals, the Sandinistas formed a state-owned agriculture sector and carried out the expropriation of the land owned by Somoza and his beneficiaries as well as the expropriation of unused and under-utilised land. However, the second phase of land distribution, the creation of cooperative, fell short of the target. The process of setting up cooperatives was slow and unpopular among the rural poor, thus instead, the principle of individual private ownership was implemented.108

Social Reforms

During the first years of the revolution a host of social programmes accompanied the economic reforms. These aimed to facilitate the elimination of exploitation and poverty that inflicted much of the Nicaraguan population. The Sandinistas proposed to set up a comprehensive system of social security that would halt the exploitation of the working class. Protection from unjust treatment and firing, right to vacations, social security coverage, guarantees to sufficient income were some of the proposed reforms.109

The Sandinistas accomplished significant improvements in the provision of healthcare. Massive vaccination campaigns were launched to eradicate endemic illnesses and prevent epidemics and new primary health care system was established.110 Equally ambitious reforms were applied to education. The Sandinistas set aims at upgrading education at all levels through massive literacy campaign, free education, maintenance grants, nationalisation of the centres of private education and making university more accessible to the disadvantaged.111 The literacy campaign earned the recognition of UNESCO for its success. It was claimed that the campaign taught three-quarters of its illiterate to read and write.

Limitations of the Economic Model

The comprehensive socio-economic reform program, which made some important steps toward alleviating the deprivation of the lower classes, lost its momentum after a few years. A fall in private investment and domestic savings and growing foreign debt that added to the deterioration of the economy by 1990. Some calculations put Nicaragua's economy in 1990 on par with where it had been, on a per capita basis, in 1942.112

Most Nicaraguans experienced a steep decline in their standard of living. Their purchasing power slumped below the figure of the 1970s. From July 1979 to February 1982 monetary wages diminished in real terms by about 45 per cent.113 More, the Central American Historical Institute estimated that between 1981 and 1990 the real value of wage fell by 92 per cent.114 Combined with 40 per cent increase in prices in 1982, the result was a drop in consumption, 12.3 per cent for basic and 24.5 per cent for nonbasic consumption. Inflation was at unacceptably high levels. For example, in 1988 inflation climbed to 33,600 per cent.115 The social wage to compensate for the decline in real wages was only provided until 1981 due to the shortage of external resources.116 By 1988 unemployment or under-deployment had reached 38 per cent caused primarily by the laying off of government workers and the collapse of domestic industrial production. The differential impact of stringent austerity programmes carried out towards the end of the decade was gradually increasing income inequality and social differentiation.117 By the end of the 1980s the welfare reforms suffered erosion and reversal. Malaria and tuberculosis became widespread and infant mortality grew rapidly.118 With regard to literacy, follow-up studies have challenged the real benefits of the campaign, highlighting the short-lived effects on literacy.119

The reasons for the downward spiral of economic fortunes can be roughly divided into external circumstances and actors that were beyond the Sandinista control, and the flawed domestic policies that the government is responsible for.

A salient obstacle to the achievement of social and economic transformation were the severe structural problems of the Nicaraguan economy. The pre-existing economic base was defined by its external orientation. Its earnings derived from a limited range of primary export articles, which made it vulnerable to fluctuations in international markets, and it was dependent on external sources for capital goods and inputs. Given the widespread inequality and poverty, domestic consumption was low.120 In addition, the fleeing functionaries of the Somoza regime augmented the economic adversity by fleeing with $3,500,000 of Nicaragua's currency reserves, thus leaving the revolutionaries a country in ruins.121

To their misfortune, the Sandinistas were faced with the world recession in the early 1980s which accentuated the underlying weaknesses of the Nicaraguan economic base. The terms of trade worsened and export earnings slumped, draining the capacity to implement the sweeping social programs. For example, the purchasing power of Nicaragua's exports fell by 20 per cent between 1981 and 1984.122

Economic Impact of the Counterrevolution

The counterrevolution and the U.S. multifaceted opposition had a crippling effect on the Sandinista programmes. The political volatility and warfare inflicted enormous human material, economic and financial costs. The Sandinistas had to allocate ever-growing proportion of the national budget to military spending, constituting merely 7 per cent in 1980 and about 50 per cent in the height of the war. It has been estimated that by the end of 1984 direct material damage totalled $97.1 million, and production losses some $282.6 million.123 The volatile political situation drove away potential investors.

The war wreaked vast human suffering. Tens of thousands were killed, wounded, kidnapped, orphaned, or displaced. There were large-scale damages to public and private property. UNICEF documents 64 schools destroyed, 600 educational centres and 840 educational collectives abandoned, and some 400 health centres and hospitals destroyed along with 15 childcare centres. In their estimation the total war damage was $12 billion.124 As a result of budgetary scarcity and the war damage, the delivery of social services suffered.

The US backing of the counterrevolutionaries put the Sandinistas in highly adverse position. In addition to funnelling military aid to the rebels, the U.S. could use its economic power to effectively stifle Nicaraguan economic activities. The economic aggression culminated in 1985 total trade embargo, which, it has been estimated, cost Nicaragua some $50 to 90 million. On top of that, the U.S. pressured politically against any international loans for Nicaragua from 1981 onward by voting against loans from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank.125

Ed Brown has concisely summarised the impact of the contra war on Nicaragua's economy. ‘It is practically impossible to separate Nicaragua's economic trajectory during the revolutionary period from the effects of the external aggression since the logic of the revolutionary project had [...] to change from that of social and economic transformation and political sustainability to simple material survival.'126

Flaws of the Economic Model

The decisions of the Sandinista government about the required changes in economy generated some of the debilitating processes.

The transition process itself was inherently destabilising. The pulling apart of established property relations and the bureaucratic apparatus resulted in capital and trained personnel flight. The nascent revolutionary state was faced with a multiplication of tasks and growth in levels of demands. The uncertainty that follows radical political changes also had detrimental effect on the investment climate, thus limiting state's financial tools.127

Owing to the populist streak, the economic strategy operated to cater simultaneously to the private and public sector needs. The state tried to improve popular living standards, whilst protecting the profits of capitalist producers. The inherent contradictions of this approach produced a predicament of consumption without production. In an effort not to estrange the bourgeoisie, the reforms necessary to attain socialisation were delayed and eventually not realised. Slow progress in agrarian reform, unequal distribution of incentives and bonuses, and a bias of sacrifice towards the peasants and workers disillusioned the popular sectors of revolutionary alliance.128 With the growing contraction of the economy, the pattern of relinquishing ideas that aimed at social justice escalated. The government began to offer new incentives to the middle sectors and the employers at the expense of a decline in the wages and living conditions of the masses.129

The faulty strategy hindered progress in productivity and capital accumulation. The state failed in its role as a producer and a coordinator of all economic activities. Its inefficient performance became a burden for the economy instead of generating surplus for financing social programmes. The nationalisation of foreign trade also failed to deliver savings as Nicaraguan exports were undervalued and imports overvalued. At the same time the state granted large subsidies to the private export sector. By 1989 these subsidies amounted to 65 percent of the total government budget.130 The unproductive state sector, unfavourable terms of trade, and the drain of subsidies to the private sector generated disequilibrium in the balance of payments and fiscal deficit. Further exacerbating the situation were the inflationary pressures that were exacerbated by financing of deficits through the Central bank.

In the face of the downward spiral, the Sandinistas embarked on a new economic direction to restore profitability. In the late 1980s an austerity program was implemented which included some privatisation and sharp reductions in public employment. The economic policies distanced itself markedly from ‘the socialist orientation of the mixed economy.'131 To reactivate investment and win over the international economic community the government strengthened its alliance with the private sector. Generous concessions over incentives, prices, credits, supplies and subsidies were granted.132 The strategy involved sacrificing progress in agrarian reform and state social services.133 Hence, the brunt of the austerity policies was felt by the popular classes.

The plan to remodel the organisation of Nicaraguan economy was initially devised with consideration to the availability of sufficient foreign resources. The deficits generated by social programmes and capital investment were to be accomplished with external support.134 For example, the Sandinistas managed to sustain relative prosperity with re-negotiation of their external debt and with obtaining net capital inflows of $1.6 billion in 1980 and 1981.135 However, access to foreign resources was dwindling rapidly, at first due to U.S. economic aggression and subsequently by the developments in the Soviet bloc in late the 1980s. After Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the USSR in 1998 the process of liberalisation marked reduction in the favourable trade relations with, and economic assistance to socialist-oriented states, including Nicaragua. This trend was followed by cuts in trade credits and aid by other East European socialist countries.136

1990 Elections: the End of the Revolutionary Decade

The Sandinistas were confronted with ever-escalating domestic and international pressures which debilitated the economy and thereby undercut the popular confidence in the regime. To call a halt to these pressures, the FSLN promised to hold elections in 1990. General election was expected stabilise the political instability by ending the contra war definitely, unlocking aid from Western Europe and lifting the U.S. embargo.137

The principle of political pluralism was upheld in the 1990 elections. At national and local level twenty-five parties in total registered their candidates.138 The principal threat to the FSLN was the centre-right National Opposition Union (UNO). Throughout the 1980s the opposition was weakened by factionalism. For the 1990 elections a coalition of fourteen parties, under the leadership of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, was formed to contest the FSLN. The UNO's campaign identified the Sandinistas with warfare and economic downfall, and promised to initiate democratic reconciliation. On the FSLN side, an aggressive and polarising election campaign was launched, which centred on discrediting the opposition by underlining their ties to the contras and the Somoza National Guard. In addition, their tactic involved breaking up the opposition to lower their chances of winning a majority.139

The election was monitored by more international observers than any previous election in an independent country. There were 2,578 accredited foreign observers from 278 organisations and an additional 1,500 foreign correspondents to report on any irregularities.140 Prior to the election, the opposition and external observers brought to FSLN's attention a number of issues that were regarded as impinging on the fairness of elections. For the most part, the Sandinistas addressed these concerns. Land confiscation was ended, conscription into active military service was rescinded, most political prisoners were released, opposition media exposure was improved, and the prohibition of campaign violence was decreed 141 Another reassuring factor of fair elections was the 75 per cent voter turnout.142

The elections resulted in a defeat for the FSLN. The control over the presidency, the National Assembly and most municipalities were handed over to the UNO. Chamorro won with 54.7 per cent of the votes, while Ortega garnered 40.8 per cent of support. The allocation of seats in the National Assembly was 51 for the UNO, 39 for the FSLN, and one seat each for the two other parties (Yatama and MUR). At the local level, the UNO took 102 of 131 municipalities.143 The 1990 election set the pattern of right-wing dominance in Nicaraguan politics, which lasted until 2006. In 1997 Arnoldo Aleman of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) assumed power, followed in 2002 by Enrique Bolaños of the Alliance for the Republic (APRE).

The decade of revolutionary rule had a profound impact on the political attitudes and behaviour of the Nicaraguan population. Despite the authoritarian tendencies which surfaced in reaction to the perceived threat to the revolution, Nicaraguans emerged from this experience as supporters of democracy. The Nicaraguan revolution's main institutional legacy is a more democratic electoral system and less institutional authoritarianism. The Sandinista adoption of electoral democracy to build legitimacy along with international pressures pushed Nicaragua toward the consolidation of formal electoral democracy. The revolutionary experience added new elements to Nicaraguan political culture. Nicaraguans are more likely to participate in campaigning, support civil action and confrontational political methods, express commitment to democratic norms, and be active in communal associations and unions.144 ‘The Sandinistas became the first revolutionary government that had achieved power by armed struggle to relinquish power through an electoral process to a non-revolutionary opposition.'145

Adaptation of the FSLN

While consigned to opposition, ‘the Sandinistas still retained mass support, strong organisation and a sizeable minority in the national assembly.'146 The electoral defeat brought with it a process of reassessing their political ideology and tactics, a shift from "radicalism" to "political realism".147 The original revolutionary objectives were set aside and were replaced with more immediate political imperatives. The FSLN set their sights on controlling positions of power and strengthening their economic interests. Back-room deals rather than mass struggle became to govern their political practice.148 The cost of this new direction was the estrangement of those who sought to maintain the original content and objectives of the revolution.

Ideological revision was accompanied by important adjustments to the organisational structure of the FSLN. The custom of collective leadership gave way to centralisation of power. Ortega safeguarded his position of power by insisting on remaining both party leader and presidential candidate.149 Ortega's authoritarian style of leadership caused the party to split into hardliner Sandinistas, who followed Ortega, and reformist Sandinistas and centre-left independents.150 In 1996, the dissidents of the FSLN formed the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which denounced "Danielismo" and called for a re-foundation of Sandinismo.151

Emblematic of the FSLN's new direction is the 1998 pact between the FSLN and the incumbent Liberal Constitutionalist Party. The parties collaborated to pass an antidemocratic Electoral Law and constitutional reforms which served as a vehicle to divide power between the parties at all levels of government and administration. The constitutional amendments allowed the then-president Arnoldo Alemán to run for a second presidential term. He returned the favour by changing the Electoral Law in 2000 to enable a candidate to win the first round of the presidential elections with only 35 per cent provided the difference with the number two was at least 5%.152 ‘Nicaragua was transformed into a crony "consociational democracy"-a coalition of two political parties, firmly controlled by their leaders, colluding for their mutual benefit.'153 This episode exemplifies the evolvement of Ortega from "socialist idealist" to "political opportunist".154

1990-2006: Right-Wing Rule

Under the right-wing governments Nicaraguan economy was restructured in line with neoliberal economics. Accordingly, the reversal of progressive Sandinista policies, which were grounded in state's intervention in the economy, was accelerated. The ending of the trade embargo and financial liberalisation managed to curb inflation and fiscal deficit, but market policies failed to revitalise productive activity and investment levels. The costs of liberalisation and privatisation were cuts in social spending, massive increase in unemployment, and declining living standards for the majority.155 Under "efficiency savings" 400 essential state services were privatised between 1990 and 2006.156 In the political sphere, the right-wing coalition began to disintegrate after 2001, over corruption and unfettered accumulation of personal power. In 2003 President Bolaños brought Áleman to trial for the theft of $100 million of public funds.157 This corruption scandal created a factional rivalry on the right which paved the way for Ortega's electoral victory in 2006.158

2006: FSLN's Return to Power

After losing elections in 1989, 1995 and 2001 Ortega regained power again in 2006. He greatly benefited from divisions among the liberals. The liberal candidates José Rizo Castellón of the PLC and Eduardo Montealegre of the ALN won in total 55 per cent of the votes. As a result of their discord, Ortega earned the largest share of the votes. In fact, Ortega's share of votes declined from 42.3 per cent in the 2001 elections to 38 per cent in 2006.159 The change in the Electoral Law, which was implemented in collusion with the Alemán administration, enabled Ortega to win.


The economy follows the principles of market economy to win over the business sector, whilst the funding for extensive social programmes is maintained not to estrange the popular classes and more radical followers.160 The government has reached a compromise with local and global capitalism by placating local businessmen, courting foreign investors, avoiding conflict with the U.S., and maintaining good relations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).161 Meanwhile, the redistributive component of the economy is subsidised by the $1.4 billion fund from left-wing, oil-rich Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.162

This strategy has turned Nicaragua into the fastest-growing economy in Central America. It attracts double-digit investment, sizeable tourism revenues, and its exports have increased. Inflation rate is still high, 7 per cent in 2010, but only a fraction of the 33,000 per cent in 1988. Going into the 2011 elections, the economy was estimated to be growing at a rate of between 4 and 5 percent, with an even healthier growth in exports.163

According to the IMF progress report on Nicaragua, from 2007 to 2010 Nicaragua has seen a substantial contraction in inequality and poverty. The report commends the positive results of redistributive government policies that have facilitated economic recovery and growth in the midst of a world financial and economic crisis. The government has succeeded in generating a climate of confidence that supports greater levels of social cohesion and national alliances and in turn facilitates productive development and investment.164

Foreign Relations

In international politics Ortega tries to maintain cordial relations with the international community. Nicaragua is in compliance with the IMF to receive loans, is committed to alleviating poverty and combatting drug trafficking, observes CAFTA free-trade agreement to unlock US aid, and cultivates strong ties with Venezuela to secure low oil prices.165 Upon assuming office in 2007 Ortega joined the socialist trading bloc ALBA and signed extensive economic agreements with Venezuela. Venezuela has received Nicaraguan agricultural produce valued at more than $250 million in 2010.166 In exchange, Venezuela provides oil, which in the period between 2007 and 2012 was valued $2.56 billion according to Nicaragua's Central Bank.167


Formally, Nicaragua has the standard democratic institutions and processes. It respects civil and political liberties, holds regular freely contested elections, and has a constitution that mandates the separation of powers. Political pluralism is also guaranteed with no restrictions on political participation or constraints on the expression of political views, and no political prisoners. The rule of law could be improved on.168

At the local level the process of democratisation has been fast-moving. The municipal governments' have become more responsive to constituents and have enlarged their capacity to effectively deliver services and implement development policy to help people improve their lives. The democratic process has been more rule-bound, adhering to term limits and autonomous democratic governance.169 CINASE's 2008 pre-election survey found stark differences in citizens' views of national versus local government. For example, 31.0 per cent saw the national government as corrupt, compared to 8.3 per cent for the local government.170

National-level politics is afflicted with authoritarian tendencies and a regress in democratic governance. The peculiarity of Nicaraguan political system is personalism, which has been a profound barrier to the rule of law even within the framework of constitutional democracy. Personalism contributes to populism, co-optation, and corruption. It is undermining the democratic constitution and other political institutions and detracts from the legitimacy of the Sandinista aspirations.171 Ortega's governing style alternates between democracy and autocracy. He tolerates the constraints of the democratic system but also seeks to accumulate as much power as possible by pleasing the masses.172 The line between the party and the state has become blurred as the FSLN has gained control of all four branches of government: the executive, judiciary, electoral authority and national assembly.173 Since returning to power, Ortega has been accused at home and abroad of dismantling constitutional checks and balances and of engineering election fraud.174

2011 Elections

Prior to the 2011 election the constitutional ban on two-term re-election limit was lifted. The six judges on the Supreme Court, who had affiliation to the FSLN, declared article 147 of the Constitution "inapplicable".175 In addition, irregularities were reported at polling stations, as election observers complained that the government had obstructed their work.176 Despite these weak points, the election results were generally accepted both domestically and internationally. Daniel Ortega won with 62.5 per cent of the vote over his rival Fabio Gadea, of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), who gained 31 per cent of the vote. In third place was the former president Arnoldo Alemán of the PLC, who won a mere 6 per cent of the vote. The FSLN also won a majority in the National Assembly, giving them 63 of the 92 seats.177



1 For a comprehensive overview of early history, see T.W.Walker and C.J.Wade, Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle (Boulder: Westview Press, 2011)

2 For an account of Sandino's struggle against the Marine Corps, see MacAuglay, N., The Sandino Affair (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1998)

3 Walker and Wade (2011), pp.20-26

4 For a comprehensive account of the Somoza dynasty, see Crawley, E., Dictators Never Die: A Portrait of Nicaragua and the Somoza Dynasty (Palgrave MacMillan, 1967)

5 Library of Congress Country Studies

6 Sequeira, A.C., ‘Nicaragua: a revolution in crisis,SAIS Review, Vol.4, No.1, Winter-Spring (1984), p.91

7 Zimmermann, M., Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p.90

8 Library of Congress Country Studies

9 Zimmermann (2000) p.72

10 Ibid, p.103

11 Clos, R., ‘In the name of the God who will be: the mobilization of radical Christians in the Sandinista Revolution,' Journal for the Study of Radicalism, Vol.6, No.2, Fall (2012), p.22

12 Bishop, M. and Borge, T., Sandinistas Speak: Speeches, Writings, and Interviews with Leaders of Nicaragua's Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1982), p.14

13 Zimmermann (2000), p.104

14 Williams, P., The Catholic Church and Politics in Nicaragua and Costa Rica (Great Britain: The MacMillan Press Ltd, 1989), p.79

15 Clos (2012), p.23

16 Ibid, pp.24-25

17 Ibid, p.27

18 Vilas, C.M., State, Class, and Ethnicity in Nicaragua: Capitalist Modernization and Revolutionary Change on the Atlantic Coast (Boulder: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1989), p.309

19 Sequeira (1984), p.92

20 Lecuona, R.A., ‘Cuba and Nicaragua: the path to Communism,' International Journal on World Peace, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1987), p.118

21 For example, see Lecuona (1987)  for a skeptical view; see Vilas (1989) for an account of FSLN's multiclass character

22 Vanden, H.E. and Prevost, G., Democracy and Socialism in Sandinista Nicaragua (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., 1993), pp.89-90

23 Zimmermann (2000), p.8

24 Ibid, p.3

25 Ibid, p.103

26 Ibid, p.9

27 Ibid

28 On U.S.-Nicaragua relations, see Bermann, K. Under the Big Stick: Nicaragua and the United States Since 1848 (Boston: South End Press, 1986)

29 Lecuona (1987), p.121

30 Morris, K. E., Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Struggle for Liberation (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2010), pp.7-8

31 Ibid, p.9-10

32 Ibid, p.11

33 Vanden (1993), p.91

34 Matthew, R., ‘The limits of Friendship: Nicaragua and the West,' Report on the Americas, Vol.19, No.3, May-June (1985), pp.22-32

35 LeoGrande, W.M., ‘Rollback or containment?: the United States, Nicaragua, and the search for peace in Central America,' International Security, Vol.11, No.2, Fall (1986), p.90

36 For an extensive study of U.S. foreign policy in Nicaragua, see Sklar, H., Washingon's War on Nicaragua (Boston: South End Press, 1988); Walker, T.W., Reagan Versus The Sandinistas: The Undeclared War On Nicaragua (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987); Kagan, R., Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990 (New York: The Free Press, 1996)

37 Williams (1989), p.67

38 Soares, J.A., ‘Strategy, ideology, and human rights: Jimmy Carter confronts the Left in Central America, 1979-1981,' Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol.8, No.4, Fall (2006), p.58

39 LeoGrande (1986), p.58

40 Ibid, p.91

41 Lecuona (1987), p.120

42 Soares (2006), pp.66-68

43 Ibid, p.68,71

44 Ibid, p.63

45 Edelmann, M., ‘Soviet-Nicaraguan relations and the Contra war,' International Journal on World Peace, Vol.5, No.3, July-September (1998), p.54

46 Williams (1989), p.67

47 Edelmann (1998), p.54

48 Ibid, p.55

49 Ibid, p.59

50 Schwab, T. and Sims, H., ‘Revolutionary Nicaragua's Relations with the European Communist States, 1979-1983,' Conflict Quarterly, Vol.5, No.1 (1985), p.7

51 Edelmann (1989), p.54

52 Adams, J.S., A Foreign Policy in Transition: Moscow's Retreat from Central America and the Caribbean, 1985-1992 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), p.116

53 Adams (1992), p.109

54 Schwab and Sims (1985), p.8

55 Adams (1992), p.117

56 Ibid, p.108

57 All figures in the paragraph in Schwab and Sims (1985)

58 Adams (1992), p.8

59 Edelmann (1989), pp.52-57

60 Ibid, p.53

61 Adams (1992), p.108

62 Edelmann (1989), p.51

63 Ibid, p.53

64 See Edelmann (1989) for a detailed account of the type and volume of military imports to Nicaragua during the civil war, pp.50-60

65 See LeoGrande (1986) for more detailed overview of the diplomatic efforts

66 Edelmann (1989), p.54

67 Pastor, R.A., ‘The Making of a Free Election,' Journal of Democracy, Vol.1, No.3, Summer (1990), pp.14-15

68 Vanden, (1993), p.6

69 Williams (1989), p.173

70 See O'Donnell and Schmitter, P., Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Comparative Perspectives (Baltimore:The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986)

71 Vanden (1993), p.96

72 Puig, S.M., 'The Adaptation of the FSLN: Daniel Ortega's Leadership and Democracy in Nicaragua,' Latin American Politics and Society, Vol.52, No.4 (2010), pp.83

73 Ibid, p.83

74 Vilas (1991), p.309

75 Sequeira (1984), p.94

76 Puig (2010), p.86

77 William, P.J., ‘Dual Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Popular and Electoral Democracy in Nicaragua,' Comparative Politics, Vol. 26, No. 2 (1994), p.173

78 Ibid, p.181

79 Ibid, p.177

80 Baltodano, M. ‘Nicaragua: From Sandinismo to "Danielismo",' International Socialist Review, Iss.50 (2006)

81 Vanden (1993), pp.92-93; for extensive biography of Daniel Ortega, see Morris (2010)

82 William (1994), p.174

83 Ibid, p.177

84 On the impact of religion on Nicaraguan politics, see Sabia, D., Contradiction and Conflict: The Popular Church in Nicaragua (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997); for an account of the relationship between social change and the Catholic Church, see Williams (1989)

85 Gooren, H., ‘Ortega for president: the religious rebirth of Sandinismo in Nicaragua,' European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies (2010), p.51

86 Ibid, pp.51-52

87 Williams (1989), p.67

88 Sequeira (1984), p.96

89 Clos (2012), p.2

90 For Sandinstas' claims of ideological commonalities with Christianity, see Williams (1989), pp.80-81

91 Ibid, pp.80-83

92 Ibid, pp.65-66

93 Gooren (2010), p.51

94 Ibid, p.53

95 For an account of the relationship between feminism and revolution, see Kampwirth, K, Feminism and the Legacy Of Revolution: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas (Ohio University Press, RIS Latin America Series, 2004); for a critical study of women's position in post-revolutionary Nicaragua, see Babb, F.E., After Revolution: Mapping Gender and Cultural Politics in Neoliberal Nicaragua (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001)

96 Turner, P., ‘Religious Aspects of Women's Role in the Nicaraguan Revolution,' in Haddad, Y.Y. and Findly, E.B. eds. Women, Religion, and Social Change (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985), p.325

97 Ibid, p.326

98 Ibid p.330

99 Vanden (1993), pp.90-91

100 Brown, E., ‘Nicaragua: Sandinistas, Social Transformation and the Continuing Search for a Popular Economic Programme,' Geoforum, Vol.27, Iss.3, August (1996), p.280-281

101 Jenkins, T., 'From the archive, 12 January 1985: Ortega offers amnesty to contra leaders,' The Guardian, 12 Jan 2012

102 Edelmann (1998), p.54

103 Vanden (1993), p.98

104 Sequeira (1984), p.92

105 Ibid, p.94

106 Brown (1996), p.281

107 Bishop and Borge (1982), pp.16-17

108 Vanden (1993), p.98-99

109 Bishop and Borge (1982), pp.19-20

110 Brown (1996), p.278

111 Bishop and Borge (1982), pp.18-19

112 Colburn, F.D. and Cruz, S.A., ‘Personalism and Populism in Nicaragua,' Journal of Democracy, Vol.23, No.2, April (2012), p.108

113 Sequiera (1984), p.94

114 Brown (1996), p.278

115 Ibid, p.279

116 Sequeira (1984), pp.94-96

117 Brown (1996), p.279

118 Ibid, p.279

119 For example, Sandiford, P., Lankshear, C. et al., ‘The Nicaraguan Literacy Crusade - How lasting were its benefits?' Development in Practice, Vol.4, Iss.1 (1994)

121 Edelmann (1998), p.53

122 Brown (1996), p.279

123 West, W.G., ‘The Sandinista Record on Human Rights in Nicaragua,' Droit et Société, 22 (1991), p.401

124 Ibid, p.401-402

125 Ibid, p.401

126 Brown (1996), p.280

127 Ibid

128 Ibid, p.281

129 Vilas (1999), p.308

130 Vanden (1993), p.99

131 Ibid

132 Vilas (1991), p.311

133 Sequeira (1984), p.97

134 Brown (1996), p.282

135 Sequira (1984), p.94-95

136 Mulholland, M., ‘Achieving development by working around capitalism: Nicaragua, Ortega and ALBA,'  January 26 (2012)

137 Pastor, R.A., ‘The Making of a Free Election,' Journal of Democracy, Vol.1, No.3, Summer (1990), p.15

138 Vanden (1993), p.92

139 Pastor (1990), p.16

140 Ibid, p.18

141 Ibid, p.20

142 Voter turnout data for Nicaragua The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

143 Pastor (1990), p.22

144 Booth, p.132

145 Vanden (1993), p.96

146 Mulholland (2012)

147 Baltodano (2006)

148 Ibid

149 Gooren (2010), p.56

150 Anderson, L.E. and Dodd, L.C., ‘Nicaragua: progress amid regress?', Journal of Democracy, Vol.20, No.3, July (2009), p.156

151 Baltodano (2006)

152 Ibid

153 Colburn and Cruz (2012), pp.110-112

154 Arsenault, C., 'Nicaragua's Ortega: socialism to ppportunism,' Al Jazeera, 8 Nov 2011

155 Brown (1996), p.288

156 Baltodano (2006)

157 Brown, E., and Cloke, J. ‘Neoliberal Reform, governance and corruption in Central America: Exploring the Nicaraguan case', Political Geography, 25 (2005), p.613

158 Anderson and Dodd (2009), p.155-156

159 Gooren (2010), p.50-51

160 Anderson and Dodd (2009), p.157

161 Baltodano (2006)

162 Mulholland (2012)

163 Colburn and Cruz (2012), p.116

164 IMF Country Report, No.11/323, International Monetary Fund, (2011), p.7

165 Anderson and Dodd (2009), p.157

166 Mallen, P.R.. ‘Petrocaribe Holds 8th Annual Summit In Managua, Nicaragua; Why Is Maduro So Determined To Deepen His Influence In The Caribbean?', International Business Times, 2 July 2013

167 Osava, M., ‘Dependent on Venezuela's Oil Diplomacy,' Inter Press Service, March 18 2013

168 Colburn and Cruz (2012), p.105-106

169 Anderson and Dodd (2009), pp.159, 165

170 Ibid, p.162-163

171 Colburn and Cruz (2012), p.105-107

172 Anderson and Dodd (2009), p.157

173 Arsenault, C., 'Nicaragua's Ortega: Socialism to opportunism?' Al Jazeera, 8 Nov 2011

174 Rogers, T., ‘Nicaragua: How Left and Right Are Uniting Against Ortega', Time, 9 July 2010

175 Gooren (2012), p.57

176 'Polls close in Nicaragua amid complaints,' Al Jazeera, 7 Nov 2011

177 Colburn (2012), p.107