From Sandino to Sandinista: Comparing Nicaraguan Revolutionary Movements

I wrote this during my four-month accidental-study-abroad in Nicaragua.

My footnotes won’t transfer, but all my sources are at the bottom. If you have any questions send me an email!

From Sandino to Sandinista: Comparing Nicaraguan Revolutionary Movements

Introduction

The Central American republic of Nicaragua has had a tumultuous history, rife with occupations, revolutions, and tyranny for hundreds of years. In the 1920s, Augusto Cesar Sandino sought to liberate Nicaragua from the clutches of U.S. imperialism, refusing to lay down his arms until the “Colossus of the North” had fled, or until he had been killed. The U.S. military forces retreated, however, a U.S.-backed government under Anastacio Somoza Garcia swiftly took power and had Sandino assassinated. Though Sandino was successful in some ways and unsuccessful in others, his legacy lives on nonetheless as a symbol of Nicaraguan national honor and anti-imperialism. 

Revolutionary thinker Carlos Fonseca’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), inspired by Sandino’s valiant fight for freedom, sought to end the tyranny of the U.S.-backed Somoza dynasty and reinvent Nicaraguan society. After Fonseca’s death, the FSLN was guided by brothers Humberto and Jose Daniel Ortega. Jose Daniel Ortega departed from some of Sandino and Fonseca’s values and included the middle class and upper classes in his plans to consolidate power and build a national movement. With a more moderate socialist approach than Fonseca’s Marxist model, Ortega was able to lead a mass rebellion against Somoza, and overthrow his tyrannical government in 1979.

The first Sandinista government under President Jose Daniel Ortega ushered in a period of social and agrarian reform. During this time, Fonseca’s original ideology returned to the forefront of the FSLN, and policy focused specifically on the peasantry. However, general public apathy and U.S.-backed counterrevolutionary forces (the Contras) blocked the FSLN’s path to a new Nicaraguan communist state. 

The Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990, but returned after a victorious election in 2006. Ortega fundamentally altered the FSLN’s approach by incorporating Christianity, further distancing the party from its original values. Simultaneously, the party became increasingly socialist and religious, a unique amalgamation of traditionally ‘right’ and ‘left’ views that became known as Danielismo. The FSLN continues to lead Nicaragua today as a Christian Socialist party, showing that its platform is quite different from its original foundation.

 

Background

During the ‘Banana Wars’ of the early 20th century, the United States occupied several Latin American countries, including Nicaragua. From 1909 (formally 1912) until 1933, the U.S. controlled or strongly influenced Nicaraguan government policy in order to pursue its economic interests. The U.S. occupation of Nicaragua has been denounced as “a kaleidoscope of inconsistencies and blunders”, as its stabilization mission in reality did little to stabilize the country, but rather led to civil war, rebellion, and several coup d’etats. 

American intervention in this period (for there had been many interventions and occupations earlier) began in 1894 when Jose Santos Zelaya, a liberal Nicaraguan president, seized the Mosquito Coast as well as the British and American businesses in the region. After an unsuccessful negotiation attempt under Theodor Roosevelt, the U.S. funded conservative Nicaraguan parties and ousted Zelaya in 1909. Another liberal president, Juan José Estrada, took office until 1910 until he was ousted by conservative Adolfo Diaz in 1911. Diaz had worked for U.S. gold mining companies in northern Nicaragua in the past, but his interest in constructing the Nicaragua Canal attracted support from Germany and Japan. This worried the U.S.; a Nicaraguan-German or Japanese canal would infringe on the profitability of the recently completed Panama canal.

 However, Diaz and the U.S. had no choice but to cooperate when pro-Zelaya rebels began to lead insurgent movements against the Diaz government in 1912. This was on the condition that Diaz would give the U.S. sole control over the Nicaragua canal project, (an agreement later known as the Bryan-Chamorro treaty). 2,700 U.S. Marines arrived in Nicaragua to crush the revolt, but 120 marines remained afterwards “at the “invitation of the Diaz government.”. 

 

Sandino’s Rebellion

Thus began 13 years of anti-democratic U.S.-backed conservative government in Nicaragua. During this time, American mining companies collaborated with the conservative Nicaraguan government to exploit Nicaragua’s natural gold deposits and cheap labor. The U.S. openly denounced liberal opposition in Nicaragua and under President Wilson, military interventions expanded. The elections of 1916 were obstructed by the U.S., as the government claimed the liberal candidate was a ‘Zelayist’, assuring the transfer of power to General Emiliano Chamorro. He was then fraudulently reelected in 1920. Chamorro’s reelection thwarted liberal plans for a greater Central American federation, as Nicaragua refused to join without the honoring of the Bryan-Chamorro treaty (for U.S. control of the Nicaragua canal zone). 

At the same time, a Nicaraguan worker by the name of Augusto Cesar Sandino was working for a ‘Yankey’ gas company in Mexico. It was then he realized “that I should come to Nicaragua to take part in the struggle against North American power.”.

In 1924, moderate conservative Carlos José Solórzano won the election against Chamorro. This angered Chamorro, who staged a coup d’etat and reinstalled himself as President. In opposition, Solorzano’s liberal vice-president Juan Batista Sacasa led a Mexican-backed rebellion. Against both Chamorro and a liberal candidate, the U.S., under Calvin Coolidge, supported the return of Adolfo Diaz in 1926. Sandino returned to Nicaragua and sought arms from Sacasa but was repeatedly denied access to military provisions. Sandino was also a liberal, but considered himself a ‘true liberal’ — an Autonomist.

Rebellions against Chamorro’s coup, which was not recognized by the U.S. eventually exploded into the three-way Nicaraguan Civil War of 1926-1927. Defectors of the Sacasa Constitutionalist army gave Sandino ‘lost’ weapons, with which he was able to push Chamorro’s army out of the Segovian mountains and establish an Autonomist base in San Rafael del Norte. His forces grew from six to allegedly 800 men, though it is unknown exactly how large Sandino’s army was exactly. Still, various factions of the liberal parties had to defeat the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan army under Diaz.

Sandino openly challenged the U.S.: “Come morphine addicts, come kill us in our own land.. The capitol building in Washington will shake with the destruction of your greatness and our blood will redden the dome of your famous White House, the cavern where you concoct your crimes.” Sandino began to fly a black and red flag, which stood for ‘Freedom or Death’.

The Mexican government began to supply arms to Sacasa as well as the militias of Anastasio Somoza García, Jose Maria Moncada, and Sandino. The U.S. increased funding Adolfo Diaz’s Nicaraguan army, against Chamorro, and the liberals, fearing the spread of Mexican influence in the region. U.S. forces led airstrikes and invasions throughout the country in attempts to destroy the liberal rebellions, “murdering, violating, robbing and burning the homes of peaceful campesinos (peasant farmers) leaving thousands of children as orphans…commit[ing] acts of savagery…contrary to all human law.”

While Sacasa, Somoza, and Moncada were generals and liberal Constitutionalist Party politicians, Sandino was branded by the U.S. State Department and Nicaraguan generals as a ‘bandit-outlaw’ for his guerrilla tactics and cowboyish appearance and not recognized as a legitimate politician. While Sandino attracted a fair amount of Nicaraguan support, his main allies were Mexico and Cuba, who supported him in the fight against American Imperialism. Pre-existing conflict between Moncada and Sandino hindered the unity of a single liberal party, Sandino even challenged Moncada’s militia to a battle. Eventually however, Moncada’s forces began to crumble, and Sandino’s reinforcements were futile. Sandino arrived in the city of Chontales to find that Moncada had surrendered to Diaz and the U.S. forces and negotiated a deal, without Sandino.

The liberal Constitutionalists were thought to have communists, while the Conservatives were anti-communist; the U.S. justified its intervention as stopping the spread of Mexico’s “Bolshevikism” in Central America. In reality, the liberals were not communists, nor were they necessarily anti-American. There was no significant political difference between the two groups, they were simply run by different groups of elite families with different interests. That is, except for the Autonomists under Sandino, who were in fact socialists.

After Moncada secretly brokered a deal with the U.S. government and Diaz, a peace agreement was signed in Tipitapa in 1927. The Tipitapa Agreement formally ended the war and established the National Guard, a ‘nonpartisan military group for the pacification of Nicaragua’.

Sandino refused to acknowledge the peace agreement, seeing as the U.S. had not left Nicaragua. Sandino wrote a letter to Moncada criticizing the liberal party for selling themselves and surrendering to the U.S. Both parties, liberal and conservative, Sandino wrote, “are a pack of dogs, cowards, and traitors incapable of leading a patriotic and courageous people.”; Moncada was specifically characterized as a “Yankee boot-licker”.

Under U.S.-backed elections, Moncada became the president in 1929, followed by Sacasa in 1933. Though Sacasa did not wish for the U.S. to withdraw, Sandino refused to stop fighting until the U.S. marines had left Nicaragua. Based in San Rafael del Norte, Sandino led raids on U.S. military bases in southern Nicaragua. Sandino defeated the U.S. Marines on January 2, 1933, though the U.S. claimed it withdrew from Nicaragua due to the economic issues of the Great Depression. Sandino’s blatant refusal to accept the U.S. hegemony in Nicaragua perhaps showed the U.S. that its interests in Nicaragua were more trouble than they were worth.

Sandino met with Sacasa in February after the U.S. withdrawal to discuss a peace deal. However, despite Sandino’s request to dismantle the National Guard, Sacasa appointed Somoza as the leader of the institution. Somoza then ordered Sandino’s assassination in 1934, and after another peace deal meeting, Sandino and his associates were killed. 

Somoza staged a coup d’etat in 1937, with former Presidents Moncada and Chamorro and forced Sacasa into exile. Sandino’s name was banned from public use, and he was defamed as a communist. The Somoza ‘dynasty’ (Somoza and his two sons) then went on to rule Nicaragua for the next 43 years.

 

Sandino’s Values

In Sandino’s 1927 manifesto, he preached an ideal ‘internationalism’ which he defines as “the right to be free and establish justice”. He specifically noted the importance of the ‘Indo-Hispanic race’ and unity of those with indigenous blood, from Mexico and Central America down to the Andes mountains. Sandino pushed for a greater Spanish-American unity, a single Central American nation. Only together would the ‘Indo-Hispanic’ countries have enough strength to protect their own sovereignty against the United States.

The U.S. and those who align with it are ‘the enemy’ of his race, and of the common people or ‘plebians’ of Nicaragua. Former pro-U.S. leaders such as Diaz and Chamorro, who side with the United States, are oligarchs, are not worthy of Nicaraguan nationality according to Sandino. Sandino wished to bring an end to American Exceptionalism, and hoped that Americans would be forced to abide by the laws of the other countries in which they operate. He vehemently opposed American businesses, stressing that Nicaraguan gold mined by Nicaraguan workers belongs to Nicaraguan people, not to U.S. ‘degenerate pirates’.

The nationalization of resources and businesses in Nicaragua would benefit the Nicaraguan and other Latin people. According to Sandino, there should be quotas on the amount of foreign investment in the country. With taxation from the Nicaragua canal, crops, and gold, the country would have enough tax revenue to invest in railroads, education, and democracy.

Domestically, Sandino stressed the importance of education and literacy, equality, fair pay and redemption for the oppressed. The American businesses in Nicaragua at the time paid workers in vouchers which they could only redeem at the company store for food, however the prices were twice the market price. Workers were forced to work 12 hour days in the mines in order to feed their families. He famously wrote: “I aspire to nothing. I desire only the redemption of the working class”. All North American properties, he argued, should be confiscated and redistributed.

Politically, Sandino was against “every form of caudillismo”, or strongman leadership, and tyranny. While he called for free and fair elections, without foreign interference, he warned Nicaraguan people in his manifesto of the dangers of voting in a tyrant or a Conservative. Sandino was a fervent Catholic, and believed his mission to liberate Nicaragua was supported by God. Intellectual civilians should be the leaders of Nicaragua, rather than ‘men who have stained their hands with fraternal blood.’ (meaning Moncada). Additionally, Sandino was against corrupt, hypocritical liberals (such as Moncada) who spend funds for the poor on ‘banquets and champagne’ and lacked patriotism. In his letters to American businessmen, he refers to Americans as ‘you, the capitalists’, showing his disdain for at least the U.S.’ approach to capitalism, if not capitalism in general. Sandino was also against the death penalty.

 

The Foundation of the FSLN

Anastasia Somoza Garcia took power in 1937, his family ruled Nicaragua until 1979, either directly though the presidency, or through the National Guard which had been created as a result of the Treaty of Tipitapa. Anastasia Somoza Garcia, and his sons Luis and Anastasio Somoza Debayle each served two terms, but effectively ruled as dictators by expanding the executive powers of the president. While Somoza Garcia had initially run on a pro-labor platform, in the 1940s he reverted to conservative tactics elite patronage. While there were liberal candidates elected during the Somoza dynastic era, such as Leonardo Arguello Barreto, they were quickly overthrown by the national guard.

Carlos Fonseca began to question the legitimacy of the Somoza dynasty in high school in the 1950s. Looking for opportunity, Fonseca moved to Managua, where he joined the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN), which was Marxist-Leninist communist party. Fonseca was frustrated by Somoza’s increasingly repressive government policies such as the silencing of liberal opposition, which led him to create various student groups at the National University of Leon. In 1959, several student protests in Leon were shut down by the Somoza regime. The National Guard fired live ammunition into the crowd, killing four and injuring 100. The repression of freedom of speech and assembly however only led to the growth of the movement, which began to attract international attention. Rene Shick, a more moderate conservative, was elected president, which quelled the coming rebellion temporarily, though Somoza remained head of the National Guard.

Fonseca left the PSN and founded the Movement for a New Nicaragua (MNN) which was a socialist party, with more liberal and less radical platform than the communist PSN. The MNN incorporated older generations, not only students; it was then that Fonseca met survivors from Sandino’s army in the 1920-30s and gained valuable military experience. By 1963, the MNN had grown eventually became the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Operating in Honduras, Fonseca’s group of university students and Sandinista veterans were joined by Cuban revolutionaries. The mission was to lead, essentially, another Cuban revolution. Fidel Casto later invited the FSLN to Cuba to fight U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries alongside Cuban soldiers.

The FSLN, similarly to Sandino himself, sought to “fight to rescue the exploited classes from the clutches of the oligarchy and capitalism.. Advocate a distribution of wealth, elimination of illiteracy, and the creation of a new education system… land reform, urban reform, the nationalization of foreign business and do away with the traditional political parties.” Additionally, Fonseca sought to improve the lives of the indigenous peoples of Nicaragua. 

The FSLN, with an army of less than 200, entered northern Nicaragua in the northern jungles in 1963, where they engaged in guerrilla warfare with the national guard. The operation failed, resulting in the deaths of many FSLN members, and they retreated into Honduras. It was then Fonseca realized that a successful revolution is both civic and military; voting or violence alone achieves nothing. In addition to a governmental revolution, there must also be a social revolution, to change Nicaragua from a dependent capitalist state to a self-sufficient socialist state. The social revolution would promote “strict standards on personal and sexual behavior and the avoidance of ‘indulgences’ such as drinking and smoking.”, part of Fonseca’s ‘new man’ and ‘new woman’ policies.

In the following years in Leon, Fonseca was arrested eight times for leading protests, and exiled three times to Guatemala. Fonseca saw himself as Sandino’s successor, and spent the early 1970s reading and writing everything he could on Sandino, in Cuba after his release from prison. In 1972, a devastating earthquake destroyed most of Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. Relief funds from all over the world poured into Somoza’s hands, but were never redistributed to the people. Instead, the funds were re-allocated into Somoza dynasty’s family businesses. From 1972 to 1979, the national debt increased from 200 million to 1.5 billion. For the first time, the bourgeoisie and upper classes began to drift away from the Somoza government. 

In September of 1974, all eight non-Somoza-affiliated political parties boycotted the elections, accusing Somoza of fraudulent activity, and demanding he resign. In December, the FSLN raided an elite dinner party, an unprecedented kind of terror by Fonseca. In retaliation to both events, Somoza ordered the national guard to destroy his opposition; individuals were arrested, tortured, raped and murdered, and entire villages were burned and bombed into oblivion. Additionally, the heads of prominent newspapers were assassinated mysteriously.

The FSLN, less than a few hundred men and women, split into three parties over philosophical and domestic policy issues. One of the three parties, known as ‘Insurrectional Tendency’ or ‘the Third’, was spearheaded by Humberto Ortega (as military leader) and his older brother Jose Daniel Ortega (as party leader). The other two groups focused solely on workers and lower class movements, while Ortega’s more populist approach targeted ‘the people’ as a whole: both the working class and the middle class, as well as anti-Somoza elite. It was under Jose Daniel Ortega’s guidance, and due to the increasingly violent Somoza regime, that an alliance with the bourgeoisie was possible. The softening of the FSLN’s socialist stance made it more palatable to the middle class masses and anti-Somoza elite. Most of the guerrilla had been middle class students anyway, and the FSLN was noticeably lacking indigenous or Afro-Nicaraguan troops, to Fonseca’s dismay. Therefore, it was not difficult for the FSLN to abandon these values, as they had never fully been practiced.

Unfortunately, Fonseca suffered a similar fate to Sandino and was killed before his mission could be completed. While on a guerrilla raid in the mountains near Waslala in November of 1976, he and his troops were ambushed by the national guard. With the death of Fonseca in 1976, the schism between the three parties widened. Still, the U.S. continued backing the Somoza regime.

Fidel Castro offered his full support to the FSLN in 1979, on the condition that the three groups would settle their differences and follow Humberto Ortega as military leader. With Fidel Castro’s approval, it was Jose Daniel Ortega’s social platform that then began to dominate the FSLN, and many of Fonseca’s original policies were abandoned.

 

The 1979 Revolution

The Sandinistas created ‘Los Doce’ (‘The Twelve’), a provisional government group of middle and upper-class businesspeople as a puppet movement to entice the middle and upper class masses. Los Doce sought international support for a new, “democratic reformist government”, and bore no signs of the true intentions of the FSLN.

The FSLN also created the United Peoples’ Movement (MPU), a working-class movement, and arranged for both the MPU and Los Doce supporters to lead anti-Somoza protests on the same day. In cities all over Nicaragua, tens of thousands of people marched in the streets chanting ‘Down with Somoza’. Meanwhile, the FSLN snuck through the crowds in Managua and captured the National Palace, however Somoza was not present. 

U.S. President Jimmy Carter suddenly withdrew support for Somoza, and called for negotiations, allegedly out of the fear that a communist revolution would come if the political strife was not mediated. However, Carter’s plan was to force Somoza to resign while keeping the rest of the government, and therefore U.S. interests, intact. With the majority of political parties disgruntled, and with Nicaragua’s conflict on the world’s state, the Sandinistas were able to openly create a large militant opposition to the National Guard. The Sandinista Army of Nicaragua received 5,000 non-Nicaraguan volunteer fighters from Latin America and Europe. The Sandinista Army, consisting mostly of volunteer fighters from masses, led a series of uprisings all across the country. Somoza began systematically bombing lower class neighborhoods, dropping barrels of gasoline on houses. Additionally, ‘to be young was a crime’, police forces began to ‘round up and shoot’ students. 

Still, Carter supported the National Guard and the Somoza government, if not Somoza himself. That was, until the National Guard executed an American journalist on camera. The U.S. finally withdrew all support for the National Guard and existing regime. The U.S. military airlifted Somoza out of Nicaragua and took him to Miami where he lived lavishly in exile until his death. 

The FSLN created a provisional cross-class ‘non-partisan’ 5-person junta, though two members of which were secretly associated with the FSLN, while another was FSLN comandante Jose Daniel Ortega himself. Roughly 30,000-50,000 Nicaraguans had been killed in combat or in the crossfire during the final year of the Somoza dictatorship. Still, tens of thousands gathered in celebration on July 20, 1979. At long last, the tyrant had been defeated.

 

The First Sandinista Period (Ortega’s 1979-1990 Presidency)

The FSLN had initially claimed to be democratically centralist and ‘grassroots’ like Sandino’s forces had been. However, in reality, the organization of the party was strictly vertical and the movement was socially top-down. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara had been the FSLN’s true influences, more so than Sandino, since the death of Fonseca. The FSLN was not a political party, but rather a ‘political-military organization’, until it took power in 1979. Due to the FSLN’s exile in Cuba and clandestine operations, it did not actually know what ‘the people’ wanted, other than Somoza ousted. While the FSLN claimed to represent the workers, the farmers, etc., most of its members were academics. The 5-person junta was abandoned in favor of the National Directorate, a group of 9 FSLN military commanders, all of which would remain in power until 1984.

Nicaragua was in shambles, as the national guard had destroyed entire villages and large parts of major cities, and economically damaged by the flight of many elite families. The FSLN proceeded with its original Marxist-Leninist framework under Fonseca, though it was speculated that Ortega did not ‘share that worldview’. Nonetheless, the 400 members of the FSLN were brought together in Managua to write a provisional constitution, and decided that Nicaragua was to be a communist country, and though partnered with Cuba, the Soviet Union and Vietnam, should be flexible on making temporary alliances both domestic and international for the stability of the regime. The FSLN was skeptical of the Catholic Church, due to its long time support for the Somoza dynasty, and kept their distance. Publicly, they claimed to be non-aligned, politically pluralistic, and were not concerned with religious matters. The economy, they claimed, would be mixed, however this was in order to avoid U.S. interference as the FSLN led the transition to communism. While Ortega still sought to create a more moderate Nicaragua, Fonseca’s Marxist compatriots Tomas Borge and Bayardo Arce wanted to create a communist state, ‘another Cuba’. 

In 1980, the FSLN began the education of 400,000 illiterate people in the rural townships of central Nicaragua, the first of many education initiatives. Ortega enacted a necessary land distribution policy as well; 36% of Nicaragua’s arable land was owned by large-scale farms, many of which were owned by the Somoza family or other Nicaraguan elites, or foreign-owned. 20% of Nicaragua’s arable land was confiscated and rather than being given to farmers themselves, was organized by the state, as Sandino had preached in the 1920’s. The ‘People’s Property Area’ made up more than 50% of this confiscated land, and employed 50,000 workers. Still, there were over 300,000 campesinos who had been previously employed under the Somoza regime, who were ‘in limbo’. In order to boost productivity, the FSLN threatened to confiscate any idle lands. Additionally, land titles were given to all those who received land, and those who were allowed to keep theirs. However, the workers union, some 50,000 campesinos, demanded government salaries; without money and laborers, they had little use for land.

 The state heeded the union’s requests, however relations with the U.S. led to price drops for cash crops such as coffee and cotton. Though wages rose, they could not rise as quickly as inflation, so in reality, purchasing power decreased 40% in just three years from 1980-1983. 

With the price and salary drops, the morale of the people and faith in the FSLN decreased significantly. The people were not accepting of socialism and collectivism, despite the FSLN’s propaganda against the exploitative nature of capitalism and the dangers of competition. The social change which Fonseca had hoped to create had been unsuccessful under Ortega’s National Directorate, despite education reforms pulling hundreds of thousands out of poverty. By the mid-1980s, the Catholic church also became increasingly critical of the FSLN government. Additionally, the FSLN struggled to eliminate the U.S.-backed Contras, a right-wing counter-revolutionary group who waged guerrilla warfare against the government until 1990.

In 1986 the economic crisis only worsened as a result of the U.S. trade embargo, which they openly announced would only be lifted if the FSLN was voted out of power. In response, the FSLN created free health and housing programs, and exempted productive cooperatives from paying income tax. Still, by 1989, support for the Sandinistas had diminished. Prior to the 1990 election, the FSLN’s department of agriculture began offloading land to Sandinista members: everything from tracts of farmland to small islands.

Violetta Chamorro, a US-backed neoliberal of the prominent conservative Chamorro family, won the election, pushing the Sandinistas out of the National Palace and replacing them with US-educated ‘technocrats’. The remaining state-owned land was privatized, the army was almost completely disintegrated, and most of the Sandinista reforms were repealed. Still, throughout the liberal era, Sandinista parties dominated on local levels.

 

The Second Sandinista Period (Ortega’s Presidency from 2007- 2011)

Jose Daniel Ortega’s 1996, 2001, and 2006 campaigns portrayed him as a devoutly religious man, and he was able to capture the votes of Catholic and Protestants alike. The FSLN retained Sandino’s bold black and red flag, but it was absent from their campaign; instead, Ortega used ‘merry’ colors, pastel yellow, pink and purple. Ortega abandoned his image as a guerrilla fighter, like Sandino, and traveled around the country dressed in white ‘like a prophet’. However, it was not until a split in the liberal party in 2006 that Ortega was able to win the election with 38% — he won 43% of the vote in 2001, but the liberal candidate had defeated him with 56%. 

After 17 years of losing elections, the FSLN returned to the National Palace, with Jose Daniel Ortega as President in 2007. Socially, politically, and religiously, Sandinismo had changed. Ortega’s new platform was based on ‘peace, love, combined with social reforms’. To the frustration of many Sandinista elite, Ortega outlawed abortion under all circumstances, which he had (quite radically at the time) legalized in the 1980s. By 2007, ‘loyal’ members of the 1979 revolution were few in numbers, so it was important that Ortega’s FSLN attracted larger audiences. Appealing to religion however, was simply an easier way to win votes than attempting to convert the apathetic youth into Marxist Sandinistas.

Thus in practice, the FSLN’s Sandinismo had become Danielismo, a new and unique, populist Christian Socialist movement, departing from the FSLN’s revolutionary ideology of the 1970 and 1980s. The FSLN, according to critics, “gradually became his own personal political party”. Still, the poor public did not acknowledge this change, and proudly remained ‘Sandinistas not Danielistas’, while the press questioned his intentions.

On his first day in office, Ortega reinstalled direct democracy to ‘facilitate genuine participation’. The FSLN began to provide farm animals and free roofing to rural peasants to reduce poverty and improve living conditions. Perhaps in order to secure future votes, or simply to be more egalitarian, new programs specifically targeted liberal non-Sandinista areas. The FSLN also created local councils so that rural communities could voice their demands directly to the government. Ortega melded ‘right’ (liberal) and left (socialist) policies, which his opposition criticized as an attempt to ‘win the elections at any cost’.

The main issue perhaps, was general Nicaraguan apathy towards social change. In the first Sandinista period, the FSLN only gave free animals to those who had land and could afford to feed them more than the state-allotted amount, however, programs increased to give even the poorest Nicaraguans these benefits. This showed the FSLN, while being criticized as a ‘Sandinismo of the right” had in some ways actually moved towards a stricter interpretation of socialism. 

In a shift towards one-party consolidation, Ortega fired his cabinet, replaced six supreme court judges with FSLN members, and abolished maximum term limits by annulling article 147 of the Nicaraguan constitution. Still, his support increased from 33% in 2006 back up to 44% by the end of 2009. Ortega was elected to his fourth term in 2011, with an unprecedented 62% of the vote. 

 

Conclusion

For the past 100 years, Nicaraguan rebels have fought to keep the United States out of Nicaragua. Following the U.S. military occupation of the country from 1916-1930s, Augusto Cesar Sandino rose as a national hero, refusing to lay down his weapon until the U.S. forces had fled. However, U.S.-backed leader Anastacio Somoza Garcia assassinated Sandino in 1934 and seized control of the government. His dynasty ruled until the revolution of 1979, in which, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), harking back to the legacy of Sandino, led mass demonstrations and overthrew the Somoza regime. During the first Sandinista period from 1979-1990, FSLN leadership under Jose Daniel Ortega attempted to enact the social changes of which FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca had written in exile. However, citizen apathy and the pressure of the U.S.-backed Contra army posed difficulties for the FSLN, ultimately leading to the election of a neoliberal in 1990. 

When the FSLN returned to power in 2007, it was a fundamentally different party, though it held true to many of Sandino and Fonseca’s original values. Ortega shifted the party image away from its strong guerrilla past and promised a peaceful future. Politically, the FSLN became simultaneously more extreme, both ‘left’ and ‘right’, by incorporating fundamentalist Christian values and stricter Marxist reforms. Ortega’s approval rating increased to unprecedented heights, leading to his reelection in 2011. Ortega remains in power in Nicaragua to this day. 

 

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