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Nicaraguan Revolution

Nicaraguan Revolution
Part of the Central American crisis
Date 1960s–90
Location Nicaragua

FSLN military victory in 1979

  • Overthrow of Somoza government
  • Insurgency of the Contras
  • Electoral victory of the National Opposition Union in 1990
  • FSLN retained most of their executive apparatus

Somoza government

Contras (1981–90)
Supported by:
 United States
 Saudi Arabia[1][2][3]
 Argentina (1961–83)
 West Germany (until 1990)
 Germany (1990)


Supported by:
 Soviet Union
 Romania (until 1989)
 East Germany (until 1989)
 Costa Rica
Commanders and leaders
Anastasio Somoza Debayle
Enrique Bermúdez
Eden Pastora (1981–84)
Daniel Ortega
Humberto Ortega
Joaquin Cuadra
Tomás Borge
Eden Pastora (1961–81)
Casualties and losses

(1978–79) 10,000 total killed[14]

(1981–89) 10,000- 43,000 total killed, best estimate using most detailed battle information is 30,000 killed [14]

The Nicaraguan Revolution (Spanish: Revolución Nicaragüense or Revolución Popular Sandinista) encompassed the rising opposition to the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s, the campaign led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to violently oust the dictatorship in 1978-79, the subsequent efforts of the FSLN to govern Nicaragua from 1979 until 1990[15] and the Contra War which was waged between the FSLN and the Contras from 1981-1990.

The Revolution marked a significant period in Nicaraguan history and revealed the country as one of the major proxy war battlegrounds of the Cold War with the events in the country rising to international attention.

Although the initial overthrow of the Somoza regime in 1978–79 was a bloody affair, the Contra War of the 1980s took the lives of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans and was the subject of fierce international debate. During the 1980s both the FSLN (a leftist collection of political parties) and the Contras (a rightist collection of counter-revolutionary groups) received large amounts of aid from the Cold War super-powers (respectively, the Soviet Union and the United States).

The Contra War ultimately ended following the signing of the Tela Accord in 1989 and the demobilization of the FSLN and Contra armies.[16] A second election in 1990 resulted in the election of a majority of anti-Sandinista parties and the FSLN handing over power.


  • Background 1
  • Rise of the FSLN 2
  • Overthrow of the Somoza regime 3
  • Sandinista regime 4
    • Economic reforms 4.1
    • Cultural Revolution 4.2
  • Contra War 5
    • 1984 general election 5.1
    • Esquipulas 5.2
    • 1990 general election 5.3
    • UNO 5.4
  • See also 6
  • Notes and references 7
  • Bibliography 8
    • Primary sources 8.1
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Following the United States occupation of Nicaragua in 1912 during the Banana Wars, the Somoza family political dynasty came to power, and would rule Nicaragua until their ouster in 1979 during the Nicaraguan Revolution. The era of Somoza family rule was characterized by rising inequality and political corruption, strong US support for the government and its military,[17] as well as a reliance on US-based multinational corporations.[18]

Rise of the FSLN

In 1961 José Carlos Fonseca Amador, Silvio Mayorga, and Tomás Borge Martínez formed the FSLN and, with the help of students, the organization gathered support from peasants and anti-Somoza elements within Nicaraguan society, as well as from the Communist Cuban government, the leftist Panamanian government of Omar Torrijos, and the Venezuelan government of Carlos Andrés Pérez.[19] By the 1970s the coalition of students, farmers, businesses, churches, and a small percentage of Marxists was strong enough to launch a military effort against the regime of longtime dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

Overthrow of the Somoza regime

In the 1970s the FSLN began a campaign of kidnappings which led to national recognition of the group in the Nicaraguan media and solidification of the group as a force in opposition to the Somoza Regime.[19] The Somoza Regime, which included the Nicaraguan National Guard, a force highly trained by the U.S. military, used torture, extra-judicial killings, intimidation and censorship of the press in order to combat the FSLN attacks.[19] This led to international condemnation of the regime and in 1977 the Carter Administration in the U.S. cut off aid to the Somoza regime due to its human rights violations.

On 10 January 1978 the editor of the leftist Managua newspaper La Prensa, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal was murdered by suspected elements of the Somoza regime and riots broke out in the capital city, Managua, targeting the Somoza regime.[20] Following the riots, a general strike on January 23–24 called for the end of the Somoza regime and was, according to the U.S. State Department staff at the U.S. Embassy, successful at shutting down around 80% of businesses in not only Managua but also the provincial capitals of Leon, Granada, Chinandega, and Matagalpa.[20]

In the words of William Dewy, an employee of Citi Bank who witnessed the riots in Managua:

"Our offices at the time were directly across the street from La Prensa and in the fighting that followed part of our branch was burned, but not intentionally. They were going after the Somoza-owned bank. In the turmoil they torched the [Somoza] bank and our building also burnt down. It was clear [to the U.S. business community] that the Chamorro assassination had changed things dramatically and permanently for the worse."

Interview with Morris H. Morley, 17 October 1988[20]

On 22 August 1978 the FSLN staged a massive kidnapping operation in which they took around 2,000 hostages at the National Palace in Managua. After two days, the government agreed to pay $500,000 and release certain prisoners resulting in a major victory for the FSLN.[19]

In early 1979 the Organization of American States supervised negotiations between the FSLN and the government. However, these broke down when it became clear that the Somoza regime had no intention of allowing democratic elections to take place.

By June the FSLN controlled all of the country except the capital, and on 17 July 1979 President Somoza resigned and the FSLN entered Managua,[19] giving full control of the government to the revolutionary movements.

Sandinista regime

Immediately following the fall of the Somoza regime, Nicaragua was largely in ruins. The country had suffered both war and, earlier, natural disaster in the form of the devastating 1972 Nicaragua earthquake. In 1979, approximately 600,000 Nicaraguans were homeless and 150,000 were either refugees or in exile[21] out of a total population of just 2.8 million.[22]

Economic reforms

The Revolution brought down the burden the Somocista regime had imposed upon the Nicaraguan economy and that had seriously deformed the country, creating a big and modern center, Managua, where Somoza's power had emanated to all corners of the territory, and then an almost semifeudalist rural economy with few productive goods, such as cotton, sugar and other tropical agricultural products. All sectors of the economy of Nicaragua were determined, in great part if not entirely, by the Somozas or the officials and adepts surrounding the regime, whether it was directly owning agricultural brands and trusts, or actively setting them to local or foreign hands. It is famously stated that Somoza himself owned 1/5 of all profitable land in Nicaragua. While this is not correct, Somoza or his adepts did own or give away banks, ports, communications, services and massive amounts of land.[23]

The Nicaraguan Revolution brought immense restructuring and reforms to all three sectors of the economy, directing it towards a mixed economy system. The biggest economic impact was on the primary sector, agriculture, in the form of the Agrarian Reform, which was not proposed as something that could be planned in advanced from the beginning of the Revolution but as a process that would develop pragmatically along with the other changes (economic, political, etc.) that would arise during the Revolution period.[24]

Economic reforms overall needed to rescue out of limbo the inefficient and helpless Nicaraguan economy. As a "third-world" country, Nicaragua had, and has, an agriculture-based economy, undeveloped and susceptible to the flow of market prices for its agricultural goods, such as coffee and cotton. The Revolution faced a rural economy well behind in technology and, at the same time, devastated by the guerrilla warfare and the soon to come civil war against the Contras.

"Article 1 of the Agrarian Reform Law says that property is guaranteed if it laboured efficiently and that there could be different forms of property:
  • state property (with the confiscated land from somocists)
  • cooperative property (part of confiscated land, but without individual certificates of ownership, to be laboured efficiently)
  • communal property in response to reinvindication from people and communities from Miskito regions in the Atlantic
  • individual property (as long as this is efficiently exploited and integrated to national plans of development)[24]
The principles that presided Agrarian Reform were the same ones for the Revolution: pluralism, national unity and economic democracy."[24]

The Nicaraguan Agrarian Reform developed into four phasesthis aspect alone of the Nicaraguan Revolution should be developed into a new article:

  1. First phase (1979): confiscation of property owned by Somocists and its adepts
  2. Second phase (1981): Agrarian Reform Law of July 19, 1981
  3. Third phase (1984–85): massive cession of land individually, responding to demands from peasantry
  4. Fourth phase (1986): Agrarian Reform Law of 1986, or "reform to the 1981 Law"

In 1985, the Agrarian Reform distributed 235,000 acres (950 km2) of land to the peasantry. This represented about 75 percent of all land distributed to peasants since 1980. According to Project, the agrarian reform had the twofold purpose of increasing the support for the government among the campesinos, and guaranteeing ample food delivery into the cities. During 1985, ceremonies were held throughout the countryside in which Daniel Ortega would give each peasant a title to the land and a rifle to defend it.[25]

Cultural Revolution

The Nicaraguan Revolution brought many cultural improvements and developments. Undoubtedly, the most important was the planning and execution of the Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign (Cruzada Nacional de Alfabetización). The literacy campaign used secondary school students, university students as well as teachers as volunteer teachers. Within five months they reduced the overall illiteracy rate from 50.3% to 12.9%.[26] As a result, in September 1980, UNESCO awarded Nicaragua with the "Nadezhda K. Krupskaya" award for their successful literacy campaign. This was followed by the literacy campaigns of 1982, 1986, 1987, 1995 and 2000, all of which were also awarded by UNESCO.[27] The Revolution also founded a Ministry of Culture, one of only three in Latin America at the time, and established a new editorial brand, called Editorial Nueva Nicaragua and, based on it, started to print cheap editions of basic books rarely seen by Nicaraguans at all. It also founded an Instituto de Estudios del Sandinismo (Institute for Studies of Sandinismo) where it printed all of the work and papers of Augusto C. Sandino and those that cemented the ideologies of FSLN as well, such as Carlos Fonseca, Ricardo Morales Avilés and others. The key large scale programs of the Sandinistas received international recognition for their gains in literacy, health care, education, childcare, unions, and land reform.[28][29]

Contra War

Contra Commandos from FDN and ARDE Frente Sur, Nueva Guinea area in 1987
Members of ARDE Frente Sur taking a smoke break after routing the FSLN garrison at El Serrano in southeast Nicaragua in 1987.

Although the Carter Administration had attempted to work with FSLN in 1979 and 1980, the more right-wing Reagan Administration supported a strong anti-communist strategy for dealing with Latin America, and so it attempted to isolate the Sandinista regime.[30] As early as 1981 (some sources say 1980) an anti-Sandinista movement, the Contrarrevolución (Counter-revolution) or just Contras, was forming along the border with Honduras. Many of the initial Contras were former members of the Somoza regime's National Guard unit and many were still loyal to Somoza who was living in exile in Honduras.[30]

In addition to the Contra units who continued to be loyal to Somoza, the FSLN also began to face opposition from members of the ethnic minority groups that inhabited Nicaragua's remote Mosquito Coast region along the Caribbean Sea. These groups were demanding a larger share of self-determination and/or autonomy but the FSLN refused to grant this and began using forced relocations and armed force in response to these grievances.[30]

Upon taking office in January 1981, Ronald Reagan cancelled the dispersal of economic aid to Nicaragua[31] and on 6 August 1981 he signed National Security Decision Directive number 7 which authorized the production and shipment of arms to the region but not their deployment.[32] On 17 November 1981, President Reagan signed National Security Directive 17, and authorized covert support to anti-Sandinista forces.[31]

An armed conflict soon arose, adding to the destabilization of the region which had been unfolding through the Central American civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. The Contras, heavily backed by the CIA and, although secretly, opened a "second front" on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast and Costa Rican border. With the civil war opening up cracks in the national revolutionary project, the FSLN's military budget grew to more than half of the annual budget.[30] The Servicio Militar Patriótico (Patriotic Military Service), a compulsory draft, was also established.

By 1982 Contra forces had begun carrying out assassinations of members of the Nicaraguan government and by 1983 the Contras had launched a major offensive and the CIA was helping them to plant mines in Nicaragua's harbors to prevent foreign weapons shipments from arriving.[33] The 1987 Iran–Contra affair placed the Reagan Administration again at the center of secret support for the Contras.

1984 general election

The 1984 election took place on November 4. Of the 1,551,597 citizens registered in July, 1,170,142 voted (75.41%). The null votes were 6% of the total. International observers declared the elections free and fair,[34] despite the Reagan administration denouncing it as a "Soviet style sham". The national averages of valid votes for president were:

  • Daniel Ortega, Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) – 66.97%
  • Clemente Guido, Democratic Conservative Party (PCD) – 14.04%
  • Virgilio Godoy, Independent Liberal Party (PLI) – 9.60%
  • Mauricio Diaz, Popular Social Christian Party (PPSC) – 5.56%
  • Allan Zambrana, Nicaraguan Communist Party (PCdeN) – 1.45%
  • Domingo Sánchez Sancho, Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN) – 1.31%
  • Isidro Téllez, Marxist–Leninist Popular Action Movement (MAP-ML) – 1.03%


The Esquipulas Peace Agreement was an initiative in the mid-1980s to settle the military conflicts that had plagued Central America for many years, and in some cases (notably Guatemala) for decades. It built upon groundwork laid by the Contadora Group from 1983 to 1985. The agreement was named for Esquipulas, Guatemala, where the initial meetings took place. The US Congress lobbying efforts were helped by one of Capitol Hill's top lobbyists, William C. Chasey.

In May 1986, a summit meeting, "Esquipulas I," took place, attended by the five Central American presidents. On February 15, 1987, Costa Rican President Óscar Arias submitted a Peace Plan which evolved from this meeting. During 1986 and 1987, the "Esquipulas Process" was established, in which the Central American heads of state agreed on economic cooperation and a framework for peaceful conflict resolution. The "Esquipulas II Accord" emerged from this and was signed in Guatemala City by the five presidents on August 7, 1987.

Esquipulas II defined a number of measures to promote national reconciliation, an end to hostilities, democratization, free elections, the termination of all assistance to irregular forces, negotiations on arms controls, and assistance to refugees. It also laid the ground for international verification procedures and provided a timetable for implementation.

1990 general election

The 1990 Nicaraguan General Elections marked a setback for the Sandinista Leadership. The winner of the elections, UNO (Unión Nacional Oppositora, or National Opposition Union), a coalition of political parties, was devised to match the strength of FSLN political front and to access the presidential chair. The candidate for UNO was Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, a member of the original Junta de Reconstrucción Nacional (National Reconstruction Junta) and widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, assassinated by Somoza on January 10, 1978. For FSLN, the same formula that won the 1984 General Elections was presenting its candidacy for a new term: Daniel Ortega for President of Nicaragua, and Sergio Ramírez for Vicepresident.

The 1990 Elections according to the source.[35]

Nicaraguan 1990 General Elections %
UNO 54.74%
FSLN 40.82%
MUR 1.18%
Other parties 3.26%


Nicaraguan historian and leading social investigator Roberto J. Cajina describes UNO as follows:

"Since the very moment of inception, under the political guidance and technical and financial support from the government of the US, the existence of UNO was marked by grave structural deformations, derived from its own nature. In its conformation concurred the most diverse currents of the Nicaraguan political and ideological range: from the liberal-conservative -traditionally anticommunist and pro-US, to marxist-leninists from moscovian lineage, openly declared supporters of class struggle and enemies of capitalism in its superior development stage".[36]

The constitution of the UNO Coalition for the 1990 General Elections was as follows:[36] (exact transcription and translation of the names of these political parties needed)

  • 3 Liberal factions: PLI, PLC and PALI
  • 3 Conservative: ANC, PNC and APC
  • 3 Social-Christians: PPSC, PDCN and PAN
  • 2 Socialdemocrats: PSD and MDN
  • 2 Communists: PSN (pro-Moscow) and PC de Nicaragua (pro-Albania)
  • 1 Central American Unionist: PIAC

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ "CIA-Contra-Crack Cocaine Controversy". Retrieved 10 April 2015. 
  2. ^ "Reagan Says Saudi Talked Of Contra Aid". tribunedigital-chicagotribune. Retrieved 10 April 2015. 
  3. ^ "Saudi Arabia and the Reagan Doctrine - Middle East Research and Information Project". Retrieved 10 April 2015. 
  4. ^ "The Pinochet File". Retrieved 10 April 2015. 
  5. ^ "The Contras, Cocaine, and Covert Operations". Retrieved 10 April 2015. 
  6. ^ "The Soviet Union and Revolutionary Warfare: Principles, Practices, and ...". Retrieved 10 April 2015. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ "The Soviet Union and Revolutionary Warfare: Principles, Practices, and...". Retrieved 10 April 2015. 
  9. ^ "Arms Sales (Bulgaria)".  
  10. ^ Gendered Scenarios of Revolution: Making New Men and New Women in Nicaragua, 1975–2000, Page 120.
  11. ^ "Mexico's Support of the Sandinista Revolution". Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo. 
  12. ^ "Our work in Nicaragua". Swedish International Development Corporation Agency ( 2009. 
  13. ^ "Sandinistas Find Economic Ally In Socialist Sweden". philly-archives. Retrieved 10 April 2015. 
  14. ^ a b Lacina, Bethany. "The PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset, 1946-2008, Version 3.0: Documentation of Coding Decisions" (PDF). International Peace Research Institute, Oslo. Retrieved 5 August 2013. 
  15. ^ Louis Proyect, Nicaragua, discusses, among other things, the reforms and the degree to which socialism was intended or achieved.
  16. ^ Uppsala Conflict Data Program Conflict Encyclopedia, Nicaragua, State-based conflict, Peace efforts,®ionSelect=4-Central_Americas#
  17. ^ Uppsala Conflict Data Program Conflict Encyclopedia, Nicaragua, State-based conflict, In depth, Background,®ionSelect=4-Central_Americas#
  18. ^ "Taking Care of Business in Nicaragua". Retrieved 10 April 2015. 
  19. ^ a b c d e Uppsala Conflict Data Program Conflict Encyclopedia, Nicaragua, State-based conflict, In depth, The Sandinista revolution,®ionSelect=4-Central_Americas#
  20. ^ a b c Washington, Somoza and the Sandinistas: Stage and Regime in US Policy toward Nicaragua 1969–1981, Author: Morris H. Morley, Published: August 2002, ISBN 9780521523356, pg. 106
  21. ^ Uppsala Conflict Data Program Conflict Encyclopedia, Nicaragua, State-based conflict, In depth, Nicaragua under Sandinista rule,®ionSelect=4-Central_Americas#
  22. ^ evolution of demography in Nicaragua (1961-2003), Data FAOSTAT, (last updated 11 February 2005)
  23. ^ SOLÁ MONSERRAT, Roser. "Geografía y Estructura Económicas de Nicaragua" (Nicaragua's Geography and Economical Structure). Universidad Centroamericana. Managua, Nicaragua, 1989. Second Edition.
  24. ^ a b c "Agrarian Productive Structure in Nicaragua", SOLÁ MONSERRAT, Roser. 1989. Pag 69 and ss.
  25. ^ Louis Proyect, Nicaragua, about 4/5 of the way down.
  26. ^ Hanemann, Ulrike. "Nicaragua's Literacy Campaign". UNESCO. Archived from the original (DOC) on 2007-07-03. Retrieved 2007-07-02. 
  27. ^ B. Arrien, Juan. "Literacy in Nicaragua" (PDF). UNESCO. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  28. ^ Background History of Nicaragua
  29. ^ Report on Nicaragua
  30. ^ a b c d Uppsala Conflict Data Program Conflict Encyclopedia, Nicaragua, State-based conflict, In depth, Contras/FDN,®ionSelect=4-Central_Americas#
  31. ^ a b U.S. Department of Justice, Appendix A: Background on United States Funding of the Contras,
  32. ^ University of Texas, National Security Decision Directive number 7,
  33. ^ McManus, Doyle; Toth, Robert C. (5 March 1985). "Setback for Contras: CIA Mining of Harbors 'a Fiasco'", Last in a series".  
  34. ^ "BBC ON THIS DAY - 5 - 1984: Sandinistas claim election victory". Retrieved 10 April 2015. 
  35. ^ "Bases de datos políticos de las Américas", Center for Latin America Studies, University of Georgetown
  36. ^ a b "Paradoxes from an heterogeneous and fragile electoral Alliance", CAJINA, Roberto, Pag. 44 and ss.


  • Emily L Andrews, Active Marianismo: Women's social and political action in Nicaraguan Christian base communities and the Sandinista revolution. [3] Grinnell College research project, 1997. Retrieved November 2009.
  • Enrique Bermudez (with Michael Johns), "The Contras' Valley Forge: How I View the Nicaragua Crisis", Policy Review magazine, Summer 1988.
  • David Close & Salvador Marti Puig (2010) "The Sandinistas and Nicaragua, 1979-2009" NY: Lynne Rienner.
  • Dodson, Michael, and Laura Nuzzi O'Shaughnessy (1990). Nicaragua's Other Revolution: Religious Faith and Political Struggle. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press. xii, 279 p. ISBN 0-8078-4266-4
  • Schmidli, William Michael, "‘The Most Sophisticated Intervention We Have Seen’: The Carter Administration and the Nicaraguan Crisis, 1978–1979," Diplomacy and Statecraft, (2012) 23#1 pp 66–86.

Primary sources

  • Katherine Hoyt, Memories of the 1979 Final Offensive, Nicanet, Retrieved November 2009. This is a first-hand account from Metagalpa; also contains some information on the general situation. Has photograph showing considerable damage to Metagalpa. [4]
  • Salvador Martí Puig "Nicaragua. La revolución enredada" Lirbos de la Catarata: Madrid.
  • Oleg Ignatiev, "The Storm of Tiscapa", in Borovik and Ignatiev, The Agony of a Dictatorsip. Progress Publishers, 1979; English translation, 1980.

Further reading

  • Meiselas, Susan. Nicaragua: June 1978-July 1979. Pantheon Books (New York City), 1981. First Edition.
  • "Nicaragua: A People Aflame." GEO (Volume 1 charter issue), 1979.
  • Teixera, Ib. "Nicarágua: A Norte de um pais." Manchete (Rio de Janeiro). July 7, 1979.

External links

  • Library of Congress (United States), Country Study:Nicaragua, especially Chapter 1, which is by Marisabel Brás. Retrieved November 2009.
  • Louis Proyect, Nicaragua. Retrieved November 2009.
  • Nicaragua : Whose Side Are We On? from the Dean Peter Krogh Foreign Affairs Digital Archives
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