The Nicaraguan Revolution: History and Impact

Sandinistas enter Managua, 1979
7/20/1979-Managua, Nicaragua-Members of the 5-man junta of the Sandinista provisional government wave from the top of a fire truck as they enter the main square in downtown Managua.

Bettmann / Getty Images

The Nicaraguan Revolution was a decades-long process meant to liberate the small Central American country from both U.S. imperialism and the repressive Somoza dictatorship. It began in the early 1960s with the founding of the Sandinista National Liberation front (FSLN), but didn't truly ramp up until the mid-1970s. It culminated in fighting between the Sandinista rebels and the National Guard from 1978 to 1979, when the FSLN succeeded in overthrowing the dictatorship. The Sandinistas ruled from 1979 to 1990, which is considered to be the year the Revolution ended.

Fast Facts: The Nicaraguan Revolution

  • Short Description: The Nicaraguan Revolution ultimately succeeded in overthrowing a decades-long dictatorship by the Somoza family.
  • Key Players/Participants: Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the Nicaraguan National Guard, the Sandinistas (FSLN)
  • Event Start Date: The Nicaraguan Revolution was a decades-long process that began in the early 1960s with the founding of the FSLN, but the final phase and bulk of the fighting began in mid-1978
  • Event End Date: The Sandinistas lost power in a February 1990 election, considered to be the end of the Nicaraguan Revolution
  • Other Significant Date: July 19, 1979, when the Sandinistas succeeded in ousting the Somoza dictatorship and took power
  • Location: Nicaragua

Nicaragua Before 1960

Since 1937, Nicaragua had been under the rule of a dictator, Anastasio Somoza García, who came up through the U.S-trained National Guard and overthrew a democratically elected president, Juan Sacasa. Somoza ruled for the next 19 years, primarily by controlling the National Guard and appeasing the U.S. The National Guard was notoriously corrupt, engaging in gambling, prostitution, and smuggling, and demanded bribes from citizens. Political scientists Thomas Walker and Christine Wade state, "the Guard was a sort of mafia in uniform... the personal bodyguards of the Somoza family."

Anastasio Somoza Garcia, 1936
6/8/1936-Managua, Nicaragua- General Anastasio Somoza, Commander of the National Guard and leader of the Nicaraguan revolt that forced the resignation of President Juan B. Sacasa, is shown entering Leon Fort at the conclusion of hostilities. General Somoza is seen as Nicaragua's new "strong man.". Bettmann / Getty Images

Somoza allowed the U.S. to establish a military base in Nicaragua during World War II and provided the CIA a training area in which to plan the coup that overthrew the democratically-elected Guatemalan president, Jacobo Árbenz. Somoza was assassinated in 1956 by a young poet. However, he had already made succession plans and his son Luis assumed power immediately. Another son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, headed the National Guard and went about imprisoning political rivals. Luis continued to be very friendly to the U.S., allowing the CIA-backed Cuban exiles to embark from Nicaragua on their failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

The Emergence of the FSLN

The Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN, was founded in 1961 by Carlos Fonseca, Silvio Mayorga, and Tomás Borge, three socialists inspired by the success of the Cuban Revolution. The FSLN was named after Augusto César Sandino, who fought against U.S. imperialism in Nicaragua in the 1920s. After he succeeded in ousting American troops in 1933, he was assassinated in 1934 on the orders of the first Anastasio Somoza, while he was in charge of the National Guard. The goals of the FSLN were to continue Sandino's fight for national sovereignty, specifically to end U.S. imperialism, and to achieve a socialist revolution that would end the exploitation of Nicaraguan workers and peasants.

During the 1960s, Fonseca, Mayorga, and Borge all spent much time in exile (the FSLN was actually founded in Honduras). The FSLN attempted several attacks on the National Guard, but were largely unsuccessful as they didn't have enough recruits or the necessary military training. The FSLN spent much of the 1970s building their bases in both the countryside and the cities. Nonetheless, this geographic split resulted in two different factions of the FSLN, and a third eventually emerged, led by Daniel Ortega. Between 1976 and 1978, there was virtually no communication between the factions.

Sandinistas, 1978
Sandinistas in Esteli. On September 19, the Guardia launched an attack on the city, 150 km north of Managua. John Giannini / Getty Images

Growing Dissent Against the Regime

After the devastating 1972 Managua earthquake, which killed 10,000 people, the Somozas pocketed much of the international aid sent to Nicaragua, provoking widespread dissent among economic elites. FSLN recruitment grew, particularly among young people. Businessmen, resentful of the emergency taxes leveled on them, provided financial support to the Sandinistas. The FSLN finally staged a successful attack in December 1974: they took a group of elite partygoers hostage and the Somoza regime (now under the leadership of the junior Anastasio, Luis' brother) was forced to pay a ransom and release FSLN prisoners.

The regime's backlash was severe: the National Guard was sent to the countryside to "root out the terrorists" and, as Walker and Wade state, "engaged in extensive pillage, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, rape, and summary execution of hundreds of peasants." This took place in a region where many Catholic missionaries were stationed and the Church denounced the National Guard. "By the middle of the decade, Somoza stood out as one of the worst human rights violators in the Western Hemisphere," according to Walker and Wade.

Anastasio Somoza Debayle, 1979
Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza Debayle sits in front of a row of weapons. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, son of former president Anastasio Somoza Garcia, served as president from 1967-1972 and 1974-1979, until he was ousted during the Sandinista revolution. Shepard Sherbell / Getty Images

By 1977, the Church and international bodies were condemning the Somoza regime's human rights violations. Jimmy Carter had been elected in the U.S. with a campaign focused on the U.S. promoting human rights internationally. He pressed the Somoza regime to end its abuse of peasants, using military and humanitarian aid as a carrot. It worked: Somoza stopped the campaign of terror and reinstated freedom of the press. Also in 1977, he suffered a heart attack and was out of commission for a few months. In his absence, members of his regime began looting the treasury.

Pedro Joaquín Chamorro's La Prensa newspaper covered opposition activities and detailed the human rights violations and corruption of the Somoza regime. This emboldened the FSLN, which ramped up insurgent activities. Chamorro was assassinated in January 1978, provoking an outcry and kicking off the final phase of the revolution.

The Final Phase

In 1978, Ortega's FSLN faction went about attempting to unify the Sandinistas, apparently with guidance from Fidel Castro. The guerilla fighters numbered around 5,000. In August, 25 Sandinistas disguised as National Guardsmen assaulted the National Palace and took the entire Nicaraguan Congress hostage. They demanded money and the release of all FSLN prisoners, to which the regime agreed. The Sandinistas called for a national uprising on September 9, and began to launch coordinated attacks on the cities.

Sandinistas after taking hostages, 1978
Eden Pastora, also known as Commander Zero, rides a bus with fellow Sandinista guerrillas at the end of a hijacking and hostage-taking in Managua, Nicaragua. Alain Nogues / Getty Images 

Carter saw the need to quell the violence in Nicaragua and the Organization of American States agreed to a U.S. proposal for political mediation. Somoza agreed to the mediation, but rejected the proposal to institute free elections. In early 1979, the Carter administration ceased military aid to the National Guard and asked other countries to stop funding the Sandinistas. Nonetheless, events in Nicaragua had spiraled out of Carter's control.

By spring 1979, the FSLN controlled various regions, and had struck a deal with more moderate opponents of Somoza. In June, the Sandinistas named members of a post-Somoza government, including Ortega and two other FSLN members, as well as other opposition leaders. That month, Sandinista fighters began to move in on Managua and engaged in various shootouts with the National Guard. In July, the American ambassador to Nicaragua informed Somoza that he should leave the country to minimize bloodshed.

The Triumph of the Sandinistas

On July 17, Somoza departed for the U.S. The Nicaraguan Congress quickly elected a Somoza ally, Francisco Urcuyo, but when he announced his intention to stay in office until the end of Somoza's term (1981) and to obstruct cease-fire operations, he was forced out the next day. The National Guard collapsed and many fled into exile to Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica. The Sandinistas entered Managua victorious on July 19 and established a provisional government immediately. The Nicaraguan Revolution was ultimately responsible for the death of 2% of the Nicaraguan population, 50,000 people.

Sandinistas triumphant in Managua
Sandinista guerillas arrive triomphant in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua following the resignation and expropriation of Dictator Anastasio Somoza. Tony Comiti / Getty Images

Outcome

In order to maintain influence, Carter met with the provisional government at the White House in September 1979, and asked Congress for additional aid to Nicaragua. According to the U.S. Office of the Historian, "The act required reports every six months from the Secretary of State on the status of human rights in Nicaragua and stipulated that the aid would be terminated if foreign forces in Nicaragua threatened the security of the United States or any of its Latin American allies." The U.S. was primarily concerned about the effect of the Nicaraguan Revolution on neighboring countries, specifically El Salvador, which would soon find itself in the midst of its own civil war.

While Marxist in ideology, the Sandinistas did not implement Soviet-style centralized socialism, but instead a public-private model. Nonetheless, they set out to address land reform and the widespread poverty in both rural and urban areas. The FSLN also began a widespread literacy campaign; prior to 1979 around half the population was illiterate, but that number dropped to 13 percent by 1983.

Literacy campaign in Nicaragua
Campaign for Elimination of Illiteracy in San Rafael, where a 12-year-old girl teaches other children and teenagers how to read and write outside a farmer's house. Michel Philippot / Getty Images

While Carter was in office, the Sandinistas were relatively safe from U.S. aggression, but all that changed when Ronald Reagan was elected. Economic assistance to Nicaragua was halted in early 1981, and Reagan authorized the CIA to fund an exile paramilitary force in Honduras to harass Nicaragua; most of the recruits had been members of the National Guard under Somoza. The U.S. waged a covert war on the Sandinistas throughout the 1980s, culminating in the Iran-Contra affair. Largely as a result of the FSLN having to defend itself against the Contras, which diverted funds from social programs, the party lost power in 1990.

Legacy

While the Sandinista Revolution succeeded in bettering the quality of life for Nicaraguans, the FSLN was in power only a little more than a decade, not enough time to truly transform society. Defending itself against the CIA-backed Contra aggression siphoned off needed resources that would have otherwise been spent on social programs. Thus, the Nicaraguan Revolution's legacy wasn't as sweeping as that of the Cuban Revolution.

Nonetheless, the FSLN assumed power again in 2006 under the leadership of Daniel Ortega. Unfortunately, this time around he has proven to be more authoritarian and corrupt: constitutional amendments have been made to allow him to stay in power, and in the most recent election of 2016, his wife was his running mate.

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