History of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua

Sandinistas arrive in Managua, 1979
Jubilant Sandinista rebels ride a small tank in the main square of Managua as junta arrives June 20, 1979 to take control of the government.

Bettmann / Getty Images

The Sandinistas are a Nicaraguan political party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front or FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional in Spanish). The FSLN overthrew Anastasio Somoza in 1979, ending 42 years of military dictatorship by the Somoza family and ushering in a socialist revolution.

The Sandinistas, under the leadership of Daniel Ortega, governed Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990. Ortega was subsequently re-elected in 2006, 2011 and 2016. Under his current regime, Ortega has demonstrated increasing corruption and authoritarianism, including a violent repression of student protests in 2018.

Key Takeaways: The Sandinistas

  • The Sandinistas are a Nicaraguan political party founded in the early 1960s with two primary goals: rooting out U.S. imperialism and establishing a socialist society modeled after the Cuban Revolution.
  • The party's name was chosen in homage to Augusto César Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary who was assassinated in 1934.
  • After over a decade of failed attempts, the FSLN overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
  • The Sandinistas ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, during which time they were subjected to a CIA-backed counter revolutionary war.
  • The longtime leader of the Sandinistas, Daniel Ortega, was re-elected in 2006, 2011, and 2016.

The Founding of the FSLN

Who Was Sandino?

The FSLN was named after Augusto César Sandino, the leader of a fight against U.S. imperialism in Nicaragua in the 1920s. Many of Nicaragua's institutions—banks, railroads, customs—had been turned over to American bankers. In 1927, Sandino led an army of peasants on a six-year battle against the U.S. Marines, and succeeded in ousting American troops in 1933. He was assassinated in 1934 on the orders of Anastasio Somoza García, commander of the U.S.-trained National Guard, who would soon become one of Latin America's most notorious dictators.

Mural of Augusto Cesar Sandino
Students look at a cellphone in front of a mural depicting Nicaraguan hero Augusto Cesar Sandino in Managua, on November 4, 2016 ahead of the general elections next November 6. INTI OCON / Getty Images

Carlos Fonseca and FSLN Ideology

The FSLN was founded in 1961 by Carlos Fonseca, Silvio Mayorga, and Tomás Borge. Historian Matilde Zimmerman characterizes Fonseca as the heart, soul, and intellectual leader of the FSLN "who most epitomized the radical and popular character of the revolution, its anti-capitalist and anti-landlord dynamic." Inspired by the Cuban Revolution, Fonseca's two personal heroes were Sandino and Che Guevara. His goals were two-fold: in the vein of Sandino, national liberation and sovereignty, particularly in the face of U.S. imperialism, and secondly, socialism, which he believed would end the exploitation of Nicaraguan workers and peasants.

As a law student in the 1950s, Fonseca organized protests against the Somoza dictatorship, following Fidel Castro's fight against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista closely. In fact, Fonseca traveled to Havana just months after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. He and other leftist students began to recognize the need to bring a similar revolution to Nicaragua.

Mural of FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca
Two women pass by a mural of FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) founder Carlos Fonseca in a street in Matagalpa, 25th October 1986. Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images 

The FSLN was founded while Fonseca, Mayorga, and Borge were in exile in Honduras, and included members who had left the Nicaraguan Socialist Party. The goal was to try and replicate the Cuban Revolution utilizing Guevara's "foco theory" of guerilla warfare, which entailed fighting the National Guard from bases located in the mountains and eventually inspiring a mass uprising against the dictatorship.

Early Actions of the FSLN

The Sandinistas mounted their first armed insurgency against the National Guard in 1963, but were ill-prepared. Among the various factors, the FSLN, unlike the guerillas in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba, did not have a well-established communication network and had limited military experience; many eventually received military training in Cuba. Another factor was the booming economy in 1960s Nicaragua, particularly tied to agricultural production (cotton and beef) and propelled in large part by U.S. aid. As Zimmerman states, the small Nicaraguan middle class "was culturally very much oriented toward the United States."

Nonetheless, there was vast income inequality, particularly in the Nicaraguan countryside, and wide scale migration to the cities in the 1950s and 60s. By the end of the 1960s, half the country's population lived in Managua, and the vast majority survived on less than $100/month.

In 1964, Fonseca was arrested and accused of plotting to assassinate Anastasio Somoza Debayle—the son of the first Anastasio Somoza, who had been assassinated in 1956; his son Luis ruled from 1956 until his death in 1967, and the junior Anastasio took over at that time. Fonseca was deported to Guatemala in 1965. He and other FSLN leaders were forced into exile in Cuba, Panama, and Costa Rica for much of the 1960s. During this time, he researched and wrote about Sandino's ideologies, believing his revolutionary work was destined to be completed by the FSLN.

Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza
Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza waves to his supporters behind a bullet-proof glass during a meeting in Managua in 1978, a few months before being overthrown by leftist Frente Sandinista de Liberacion National movement 20 July 1979. - (Stringer) / Getty Images 

Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, the FSLN focused on educational work, including literacy classes, and community organizing with the goal of recruiting members. In 1967, the FSLN planned their next insurgency in the remote Pancasán region. Fonseca entered the region and began to identify peasant families who would provide food and shelter. This was tricky, as many of the peasants had relatives in the National Guard, and the Sandinistas' strategy depended upon their movements being clandestine. There were several clashes with the National Guard, which ultimately wiped out Mayorga's entire column, including killing the FSLN leader himself.

Another blow to the Sandinistas was the failed excursion and eventual death of Che Guevara in Bolivia in October 1967. Nonetheless, the FSLN went on the offensive in 1968 in attempting to recruit new members, and Fonseca focused on getting urban students to understand the necessity of armed insurgency and a complete overturning of the capitalist system.

The FSLN in the 1970s

During the early 1970s, many Sandinista leaders were jailed, including eventual president Daniel Ortega, or killed, and the National Guard employed torture and rape. Fonseca was imprisoned again in 1970, and upon his release he fled to Cuba for the next five years. By this time, the FSLN was looking to the examples of China and Vietnam and transitioning to a Maoist military strategy of "protracted people's war" with a base in the countryside. In the cities, a new clandestine insurgency arose, the Proletariat Tendency. The devastating 1972 Managua earthquake killed 10,000 people and destroyed around 75% of the capital's housing and commerce. The Somoza regime pocketed much of the foreign aid, provoking widespread protest, particularly among the upper and middle classes.

In 1974, the Sandinistas launched an "insurrectional offensive" and began to make political alliances with the bourgeoisie in order to gain more widespread support. In December 1974, 13 guerillas attacked a party thrown by elites and took hostages. The Somoza regime was forced to meet the FSLN's demands and recruitment skyrocketed.

Fonseca returned to Nicaragua in March 1976 to mediate between the two factions within the FSLN (the prolonged people's war and urban proletariat groups) and was killed in the mountains in November. The FSLN subsequently split into three factions, with the third called the "Terceristas," led by Daniel Ortega and his brother Humberto. Between 1976 and 1978, there was virtually no communication between the factions.

First public appearance of Sandinista leaders, 1978
First public appearance of Sandinista leaders, (L-R) Daniel Ortega, Sergio Ramirez, Violeta Chamorro, Alfonso Robelo and Tomas Borge. O. John Giannini / Getty Images

The Nicaraguan Revolution

By 1978, the Terceristas had reunited the three FSLN factions, apparently with guidance from Fidel Castro, and the guerilla fighters numbered around 5,000. In August, 25 Terceristas 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, which the government eventually agreed to. The Sandinistas called for a national uprising on September 9, which kicked off the Nicaraguan Revolution.

By spring 1979, the FSLN controlled various rural regions and major uprisings were beginning in the cities. In June, the Sandinistas called for a general strike and named members of a post-Somoza government, including Ortega and two other FSLN members. The Battle for Managua began in late June, and the Sandinistas entered the capital on July 19. The National Guard collapsed and many fled into exile into Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica. The Sandinistas had gained complete control.

The Sandinistas in Power

The FSLN set up a nine-member national directorate composed of three leaders of each previous faction, with Ortega at the head. The Sandinistas shored up their grassroots support and equipped their military, with help from the USSR. Although ideologically the Sandinistas were Marxist, they did not impose Soviet-style centralized communism, but rather retained elements of a free-market economy. According to political scientist Thomas Walker, "During the entire [first] seven years, the Sandinistas promoted (1) a mixed economy with heavy participation by the private sector, (2) political pluralism featuring interclass dialogue and efforts to institutionalize input and feedback from all sectors, (3) ambitious social programs, based in large part on grass roots voluntarism, and (4) the maintenance of diplomatic and economic relations with as many nations as possible regardless of ideology."

Sandinista leaders meet with President Jimmy Carter
9/24/1979-Washington, DC-President Carter met with the member's Nicaragua's junta for the first time for about 30 minutes. The junta has been offered military aid that includes the training of Sandinistas at U.S. bases in Pananma. Bettmann / Getty Images 

With Jimmy Carter in office, the Sandinistas were not immediately threatened, but all that changed with the election of Ronald Reagan in late 1980. Economic assistance to Nicaragua was halted in early 1981, and later that year Reagan authorized the CIA to fund an exile paramilitary force in Honduras to harass Nicaragua. The U.S. also leaned on international organizations, such as the World Bank, to cut off loans to Nicaragua.

The Contras

Peter Kornbluh states of the Reagan administration's covert war, "The strategy was to force the Sandinistas to become in reality what [U.S.] administration officials called them rhetorically: aggressive abroad, repressive at home, and hostile to the United States." Predictably, when the CIA-backed "Contras" (short for "counterrevolutionaries") began to engage in sabotage in 1982—blowing up a bridge near the Honduran border—the Sandinistas reacted with repressive measures, which confirmed the Reagan administration's claims.

Contras pose for a photo, 1983
A group of contra Special Forces pose for a photograph while on a patrol inside a remote area of northern Nicaragua. Steven Clevenger / Getty Images

By 1984, the Contras numbered 15,000 and U.S. military personnel were becoming directly involved in acts of sabotage against Nicaraguan infrastructure. Also that year, Congress passed a law banning the funding of the Contras, so the Reagan administration resorted to covert funding through the illegal sale of arms to Iran, what was eventually referred to as the Iran-Contra affair. By late 1985, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health estimated that over 3,600 civilians had been killed by Contra action, with many more being kidnapped or wounded. The U.S. was also economically strangling the Sandinistas, blocking approval of their loan requests to the World Bank and, in 1985, instituting a full economic embargo.

The mid-1980s were also a time of economic crisis in Nicaragua due to Venezuela and Mexico cutting oil supply to the country, and the Sandinistas were forced to rely increasingly on the Soviets. National funding for social programs was cut and redirected toward defense (to take on the Contras). Walker asserts that Nicaraguans rallied around their government in the face of the this imperialist threat. When elections were held in 1984 and the Sandinistas captured 63% of the vote, the U.S. unsurprisingly denounced it as fraud, but it was certified as a fair election by international bodies.

The Fall of the Sandinistas

The war against the Contras and U.S. aggression resulted in the national directorate pushing aside non-FSLN voices and becoming more authoritarian. According to Alejandro Bendaña, "Signs of decomposition were rife in the FSLN. With the unabashedly vertical command structure came arrogance, luxurious lifestyles, and personal and institutional vices...The relentless U.S. destabilization campaign and the crippling economic embargo embittered much of the population against the Sandinista government."

The Church, then Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, and Congressional Democrats mediated a political transition and the organization of free elections in 1990. The FSLN lost the presidential election to a U.S.-assembled coalition headed by Violeta Chamorro.

Violetta Chamorro wins presidential election, 1990
Presidenial candidate of the National Opposition Union, Violeta Chamorro (L), declares victory with her vice-president Virgilio Godoy (R) early 26 February 1990. Peter Northall / Getty Images 

The Sandinista Front became an opposition party, and many members were left disillusioned with the leadership. Throughout the 1990s, the remaining FSLN leaders rallied around Ortega, who consolidated power. In the meantime, the country was subjected to neoliberal economic reforms and austerity measures that resulted in increasing rates of poverty and international debt.

The Sandinistas Today

After running for president in 1996 and 2001, Ortega was reelected in 2006. Among the parties he beat out was an FSLN breakaway group called the Sandinista Renovation Movement. His victory was made possible by a pact he made with the conservative, famously corrupt president Arnoldo Alemán, a former bitter rival of Ortega's who was found guilty of embezzlement in 2003 and sentenced to 20 years in jail; the sentence was overturned in 2009. Bendaña suggests this marriage of convenience can be explained by both parties wanting to evade criminal charges—Ortega has been accused of sexual assault by his stepdaughter—and as an attempt to shut out all other political parties.

Ortega's political ideology in the new millennium has been less stridently socialist, and he began to seek foreign investment to address Nicaragua's poverty. He also rediscovered his Catholicism, and just before he was reelected he refused to oppose a complete abortion ban. In 2009, the Nicaraguan Supreme Court removed constitutional barriers to Ortega running for another term, and he was reelected in 2011. Further amendments were made to allow him to run (and win) in 2016; his wife, Rosario Murillo, was his running mate and she is currently the vice president. In addition, Ortega's family owns three TV channels and harassment of the media is common.

A protester wears a mask mocking Daniel Ortega
An anti-government protester wears a mask depicting Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in front of a line of riot police during the so-called 'Mockery march' to protest against Nicaragua's government in Managua on October 31, 2019. INTI OCON / Getty Images 

Ortega was widely condemned for the brutal repression of student protests in May 2018 related to proposed cuts to the pension and social security systems. By July, over 300 people were reported killed during the demonstrations. In September 2018, in a move that increasingly paints Ortega as a dictator, his government outlawed protest, and human rights violations, from illegal detention to torture, have been reported.

Born as a revolutionary group seeking to overthrow a repressive dictator, the Sandinistas under Ortega appear to have become an oppressive force in their own right.


  • Bendaña, Alejandro. "The Rise and Fall of the FSLN." NACLA, September 25, 2007. https://nacla.org/article/rise-and-fall-fsln, accessed 1 December 2019.
  • Meráz García, Martín, Martha L. Cottam, and Bruno Baltodano. The Role of Female Combatants in the Nicaraguan Revolution and Counter Revolutionary War. New York: Routledge, 2019.
  • "Sandinista." Encyclopaedia Brittanica.
  • Walker, Thomas W, editor. Reagan versus the Sandinistas: The Undeclared War on Nicaragua. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987.
  • Zimmermann, Matilde. Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
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Bodenheimer, Rebecca. "History of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua." ThoughtCo, Oct. 30, 2020, thoughtco.com/sandinistas-in-nicaragua-4777781. Bodenheimer, Rebecca. (2020, October 30). History of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sandinistas-in-nicaragua-4777781 Bodenheimer, Rebecca. "History of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sandinistas-in-nicaragua-4777781 (accessed March 28, 2023).