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The Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) is a Nicaraguan political party. It was formed to oppose the Somoza family dynastic dictatorship, which ruled from 1936 to 1979. It is named after Augusto Cesar Sandino (1893-1934), a Nicaraguan nationalist and anti-imperialist patriot who fought a seven-year war from 1926 to 1933 against a U.S. occupation force. On February 21, 1934, after putting down his weapons, Sandino was killed at the order of Anastacio Somoza Garcia, the head of the U.S.-formed Nicaraguan National Guard. In 1936 Somoza Garcia consolidated his political power, overthrowing the civilian government and staging a rigged election to install himself as president. He was inaugurated on January 1, 1937. From then until 1979 either he, one of his two sons (Luis and Anastacio Jr.), or—for brief periods—one of their cronies ruled Nicaragua.
The FSLN was originally formed clandestinely in 1961. The organization’s founding members included Carlos Fonseca, Silvio Mayorga, and Tomas Borge. Particularly important to the organization’s formation and early development, Fonseca is widely credited as the organization’s intellectual father. His revolutionary ideology came to be known as Sandinismo—which combines elements of Marxist class analysis and Sandino’s own nationalist and anti-imperialist ideology as applied to the Nicaraguan social, political, and economic reality. This led the Sandinistas to organize for the military overthrow of the Somozas because they were convinced that the Somozas were completely unresponsive to peaceful demands for democratization and economic reform.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s the Sandinistas suffered serious setbacks, including the death in combat of all of its original founders, except Borge. These losses led to a regrouping period in which they sought to accumulate strength in secret while organizing politically. However, it also led to a split into several competing Sandinista factions. The first, called the Prolonged Popular War (Spanish acronym GPP) Tendency, advocated building grassroots peasant support in the countryside. In contrast, the Proletarian Tendency grew out of the urban underground and advocated the organization of union workers into self-defense units. The final faction, called the Terceristas (Third Way), favored a more pragmatic approach combining different forms of struggle and advocated the creation of a broad alliance of all Nicaraguans opposed to Somoza to generate a national insurrection.
By late 1978 the long awaited national insurrection began and many of Somoza’s supporters abandoned him. To take advantage of this opportunity the Sandinistas reunited early in 1979 and created a single nine member National Directorate with three representatives from each faction. The members were Daniel Ortega, Humberto Ortega, and Victor Tirado (Terceristas); Tomas Borge, Bayardo Arce, and Henry Ruiz (GPP); and Jaime Wheelock, Luis Carrion, and Carlos Nunez (Proletarian faction). On July 19, 1979, the Sandinista Revolution triumphed, ousting Anastacio Somoza Jr.’s regime in a mass popular insurrection.
Once in power the Sandinistas embarked upon ambitious political and economic programs designed to democratize Nicaragua and lift the country out of under-development. Their political agenda called for reforming the country’s institutions, including disbanding Somoza’s National Guard, and enfranchising the country’s vast rural and urban poor through mass organizations affiliated with the FSLN. In 1984 they carried out the first democratic national elections in the country’s history, which the Sandinistas won with 66 percent of the vote. Though derided by U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s administration as a “Soviet style farce,” the elections were designed with the technical assistance of the Swedish Electoral Commission and observed by credible international organizations and European governments. The newly elected Constituent Assembly, with the help of open “town meetings” around the country, promulgated a new constitution in 1987. Simultaneously, the Sandinistas launched aggressive economic reforms to combat the twin evils that had historically plagued Nicaragua: poverty and inequality. To this end they implemented an agrarian reform to distribute land confiscated from Somoza and his cronies (one-fifth of the country’s arable land) to individual peasants, cooperatives, and collective farms. In the cities they passed popular economic reforms, such as raising the minimum wage and introducing price controls and subsidies on basic goods and services, and embarked on public works programs to increase employment. These coincided with the Sandinistas’ desire to implement a mixed-economy in which private property, state property, and cooperative property would co-exist. Sandinista social policy was equally ambitious, especially in the areas of education, health care, and housing.
From 1979 until Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, U.S.-Nicaraguan relations were cool but noncon-frontational. However, shortly after entering office President Reagan signed a secret executive authorization to begin trying to overthrow the Sandinista government, which the United States accused of supporting the guerrillas in El Salvador, being too closely allied to Cuba, and being Communists. U.S. coercion ranged from diplomatic pressures and economic sanctions to supporting the rebel force known as the Contras and threatening direct U.S. military action. These policies put a huge economic strain on the Nicaraguan economy, and the Sandinistas were forced to respond by shifting much of their trade to Europe and the Soviet Union. Similarly since the early 1980s, sales of weapons from Western countries were also embargoed pushing the Nicaraguans to import most of their weapons from the Socialist Bloc. While the Sandinistas claimed that these weapons were for defensive purposes to fight the U.S.-supported Contra rebels, the Reagan Administration pointed to them as proof that the FSLN were Communists and presented an eminent threat to other countries in the region and ultimately the United States. However U.S. public support for military intervention, whether indirectly by supporting the Contras or directly by U.S. troops, was the most unpopular U.S. foreign military policy of the 1980s. Indeed widespread domestic opposition led to strong public pressure on Congress to limit aid to the Contras. It also eventually led to the outlawing of lethal aid for the Contras from 1984 to 1985.
In turn this led members of the Reagan Administration, notably Oliver North of the National Security Council, to engage in the illegal and covert funding of the Contras by giving them money received from selling arms to a hostile country, Iran, in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages held by Lebanese Hezbollah. When this back-channel funding was uncovered it became known as the “Iran-Contra scandal.” An independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, was appointed to investigate the affair. Eventually several members of the Reagan Administration were prosecuted and convicted. However, these convictions were later overturned on appeal or through presidential pardons.
From 1984 through early 2007 the electoral system that the Sandinistas put in place peacefully transferred power four times. The first was in 1990 when the Sandinistas were voted out of office. For the next sixteen years, three conservative administrations held power. However, on November 5, 2006, Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega was reelected president of Nicaragua on a social democratic platform. The 2006 elections were widely scrutinized by international observers including delegations from Europe, the Organization of American States, and the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. By all accounts they were, with the exception of a few minor irregularities, fair and transparent. In January 2007 Ortega began his new term in office.
- Booth, John A., Christine J. Wade, and Thomas W. Walker. 2006. Understanding Central America: Global Forces, Rebellion, and Change. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Kornbluh, Peter, and Malcolm Byrne, eds. 1993. The Iran- Contra Scandal: The Declassified History. New York: New Press.
- Sandinista Front for National Liberation. Official Homepage of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (Spanish). http://www.fsln-nicaragua.com/.
- Walker, Thomas W. 2003. Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Zimmerman, Matilde. 2000. Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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