Sandinista National Liberation Front

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The Sandinista flag

The Sandinista National Liberation Front (Spanish: Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) is a leftist political organization that ruled Nicaragua for roughly a dozen years from 1979 to 1990. It is generally referred to by the acronym FSLN and its members are called, in both English and Spanish, Sandinistas.

For many decades it was the main opposition group against successive governments of the Somoza family. After emerging victorious from a brief civil war it formed the government of Nicaragua from 1979 until 1990, during which time it faced heavy opposition from the United States due to its predominantly Marxist ideology and resulting closeness with socialist bloc countries such as the Soviet Union, Cuba, Libya, and Algeria. It lost the February 25, 1990 elections and peacefully surrendered power. The FSLN remains the country's leading political opposition to the current governing Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC).


Opposition to Somoza (1961–1979)

The FSLN was formally organised on July 23, 1961 by Carlos Fonseca Amador, Tomás Borge Martínez and Silvio Mayorga. It eventually became Marxist-aligned, and like many Communist groups began to present its struggle as a "movement for national liberation". The point being that the old goverment was oppressing the people, exploiting them and violating their rights, while the opposition promised to remedy all that.

The Sandinistas took their name from Augusto César Sandino (1895-1934), a leader in the country's nationalist rebellion against the United States military occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s and early 1930s until his assassination by the US-created Guardia Nacional (National Guard) enabled Somoza to seize control of the country.

Inspired and supported by the Cubans, the FSLN tried with little success to organise guerrilla warfare against Somoza in the 1960s. In the 1970s, it began to attract significant support from the country's increasingly politicised peasantry and from other sectors of the population in response to the dictatorship's brutality and corruption, especially after the earthquake that levelled the capital city, Managua, on 23 December 1972. The earthquake killed 20,000 of the city's 400,000 residents and left another 250,000 homeless. Somoza's National Guard embezzled much of the international aid that flowed into the country to assist in reconstruction, and several parts of downtown Managua were never rebuilt. This overt corruption caused even people who had previously supported the regime, such as business leaders, to turn against Somoza and call for his overthrow.

During the long struggle against Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the FSLN's leaders internal disagreements over strategy and tactics were reflected in three main factions:

  • The guerra popular prolongada ("prolonged popular war") faction was rural-based and sought long-term "silent accumulation of forces" within the country's large peasant population, which it saw as the main social base for the revolution.
  • The tendencia proletaria ("proletarian tendency"), led by Jaime Wheelock, reflected an orthodox Marxist approach that sought to organise urban workers.
  • The tercerista ("third way") faction, led by Humberto and Daniel Ortega Saavedra, was ideologically eclectic, favouring a more rapid insurrectional strategy in alliance with diverse sectors of the country, including business owners, churches, students, the middle class, unemployed youth and the inhabitants of shantytowns. The terceristas also helped attract popular and international support by organising a group of prominent Nicaraguan professionals, business leaders, and clergymen (known as "the Twelve"), who called for Somoza's removal and sought to organise a provisional government from Costa Rica.

On 10 January 1978, the assassination of Pedro Chamorro, who edited the anti-Somoza newspaper La Prensa, sparked a broad uprising against the regime, with the Sandinistas leading a combination of general strikes, urban uprisings and rural guerrilla attacks that increasingly demoralised the National Guard. Despite an overwhelming superiority in arms and ruthless tactics that included the aerial bombardment of Nicaraguan cities, Somoza's army disintegrated; he fled the country on 17 July 1979, and was later assassinated in Paraguay. Two days after Somoza's departure, the Sandinistas entered Managua and were greeted by huge crowds as national liberators.

Cuban assistance

Beginning in 1967 the Cuban General Intelligence Directorate, or DGI, had begun to establish ties with various Nicaraguan revolutionary organisations. By 1970 the DGI had managed to train hundreds of Sandinista guerrilla leaders and had vast influence over the organisation. In 1969 the DGI had financed and organised an operation to free the jailed Sandinista leader Carlos Fonseca from his prison in Costa Rica. Fonseca was re-captured shortly after the jail break, but after a plane carrying executives from the United Fruit Company was hijacked by the FSLN, he was freed and allowed to travel to Cuba.

DGI chief Manuel "Redbeard" Piñeiro commented that "of all the countries in Latin America, the most active work being carried out by us is in Nicaragua."

The DGI, with Fidel Castro's personal blessing, also collaborated with the FSLN on the botched assassination attempt of Turner Shelton, the U.S. ambassador in Managua and a close friend to the Somoza family. The FSLN managed to secure several hostages exchanging them for safe passage to Cuba and a one million dollar ransom.

After the successful ouster of Somoza, DGI involvement in the new Sandinista government expanded rapidly. An early indication of the central role that the DGI would play in the Cuban-Nicaraguan relationship a meeting in Havana on July 27, 1979, at which diplomatic ties between the two countries were re-established after over 25 years. Julián López Díaz, a prominent DGI agent, was named Ambassador to Nicaragua.

Cuban military and DGI advisors initially brought in during the Sandinista insurgency, would swell to over 2,500 and operated at all levels of the new Nicaraguan government.

Sandinista defector Álvaro Baldizón alleged that Cuban influence in Nicaragua's Interior Ministry (MINT) was more extensive than was widely believed at the time and Cuban "advice" and "observations" were treated as though they were orders.

Sandinista rule (1979–1990)

The Sandinistas inherited a country in ruins, with a debt of USD1.6 billion, an estimated 50,000 war dead, 600,000 homeless and a devastated economic infrastructure. To begin the task of establishing a new government, they created a Junta of National Reconstruction comprised of five members – Sandinista militants Daniel Ortega and Moises Hassan, novelist Sergio Ramírez Mercado (a member of "the Twelve"), businessman Alfonso Rebelo Callejas, and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. The preponderance of power, however, remained with the Sandinistas and their mass organisations, including the Sandinista Workers' Federation (Central Sandinista de Trabajadores), the Luisa Amanda Espinoza Nicaraguan Women's Association (Asociación de Mujeres Nicaragüenses Luisa Amanda Espinoza) and the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (Unión Nacional de Agricultores y Ganaderos).

While prominent rebel leaders such as Daniel Ortega were strong Marxists, the new junta initially contained a broad spectrum of ideology. Upon assuming power, its political platform included the following:

  • Nationalisation of property owned by the Somozas and their collaborators.
  • Land reform.
  • Improved rural and urban working conditions.
  • Free unionisation for all workers, both urban and rural.
  • Control of living costs, especially basic necessities (food, clothing, and medicine).
  • Improved public services, housing conditions, education (mandatory, free through high school; schools available to the whole national population; national literacy campaign).
  • Nationalisation and protection of natural resources, including mines.
  • Abolition of torture, political assassination and the death penalty.
  • Protection of democratic liberties (freedom of expression, political organisation and association, and religion; return of political exiles).
  • Equality for women.
  • Free, non-aligned foreign policy and relations.
  • Formation of a new, democratic, and popular army under the leadership of the FSLN.
  • Pesticide controls
  • Rain forest conservation
  • Wildlife conservation
  • Alternative energy programs

One of the most notable successes of the revolution was the literacy campaign, which saw teachers flood the countryside. Within six months, half a million people had been taught to read, bringing the national illiteracy rate down from over 50 per cent to just under 13 per cent. Over 100,000 Nicaraguans participated as literacy teachers. One of the stated aims of the literacy campaign was to create a literate electorate which would be able to make informed choices at the promised elections. The great success of the literacy campaign was recognised by UNESCO with the award of a Nadezhda Krupskaya International Prize.

The FSLN also created neighbourhood groups, similar to the Cuban Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, called Sandinista Defence Committees (Comités de Defensa Sandinista or CDS). Especially in the early days following the overthrow of Somoza, the CDSs served as de facto units of local governance, distributing food rations, organising neighbourhood cleanup and recreational activities, and policing to control looting and apprehend remnants of the National Guard. During the subsequent Contra war, they also organised civilian defence efforts against contra attacks. Critics of the Sandinistas decried the CDS as a system of local spy networks for the government and a means of political control.

By 1980, conflicts began to emerge between the Sandinista and non-Sandinista members of the governing junta. Violeta Chamorro and Alfonso Robelo resigned from the governing junta in 1980, and the governing role of the Sandinistas became obvious as Ortega and his allies consolidated power. Allegations spread among critics that the Ortega clique were planning to turn Nicaragua into a Communist state like Cuba. In 1981, the U.S. administration of Ronald Reagan began organising remnants of Somoza's National Guard into guerrilla bands known as "Contras" (short for "contrarrevolucionarios", or counter-revolutionaries) that conducted attacks on economic, military, and civilian targets. During the Contra war, the Sandinistas arrested suspected Contras and censored La Prensa as well as other publications that they accused of collaborating with the U.S. and the Contras to destabilise the country.

In contrast to the Cuban revolution, the Sandinista government practised political pluralism throughout its time in power. A broad range of new political parties emerged that had not been allowed under Somoza. Following promulgation of a new constitution, Nicaragua held national elections in 1984. Daniel Ortega and Sergio Ramírez were elected president and vice president, and the FSLN won 61 out of 90 seats in the new National Assembly, having taken 63 per cent of the vote on a turnout of 74%. Independent electoral observers from around the world, including the UN, stated that the elections had been free and fair. However, the U.S. refused to recognise them, alleging that the opposition had been marginalised in the media and elsewhere by the government; President Reagan denounced the elections as a sham.

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Political graffiti in León, 1980

Sandinistas vs. Contras

Upon assuming office in 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan condemned the FSLN for joining with Cuba in supporting Marxist revolutionary movements in other Latin American countries such as El Salvador. His administration authorised the CIA to begin financing, arming and training the remnants of Somoza's National Guard as anti-Sandinista guerrillas that were branded "counter-revolutionary" by leftists. (contrarrevolucionarios in Spanish) This was inevitably shortened to Contras, a label the anti-Communist forces chose to embrace.

They operated out of camps in the neighbouring countries of Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south. The U.S. also sought to place economic pressure on Nicaragua; the Reagan administration imposed a full trade embargo, and the CIA disrupted shipping by planting underwater mines in Nicaragua's Corinto harbour, an action condemned by the World Court as illegal. As was typical in guerrilla warfare, the Contras were engaged in a campaign of economic sabotage in an attempt to combat the Sandinista government.

The armed resistance to the Sandinistas in Honduras initially called itself the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ADREN) and was known as the 15th of September Legion. It later formed an alliance, called the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), which included other groups including MISURASATA and the Nicaraguan Democratic Union. Together, the members of these groups were generally called Contras. The Sandinistas condemned them as terrorists, and human rights organisations expressed serious concerns over reports of Contra attacks on civilians. In 1982, under pressure from Congress, the U.S. State Department declared Contra activities terrorism. The Congressional intelligence committee confirmed reports of Contra atrocities such as rape, torture, summary executions, and indiscriminate killings. After the U.S. Congress prohibited federal funding of the Contras in 1983, the Reagan administration continued to back the Contras by covertly selling arms to Iran and channelling the proceeds to the Contras (The Iran-Contra affair.) When this scheme was revealed, Reagan admitted that he knew about the Iranian "arms for hostages" dealings but professed ignorance about the proceeds funding the Contras; for this, National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Oliver North took much of the blame.

The Contra war unfolded differently in the northern and southern zones of Nicaragua. Contras based in Costa Rica operated in Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, which is sparsely populated by indigenous groups including the Miskito, Sumu, Rama, Garifuno, and Mestizo. Unlike Spanish-speaking western Nicaragua, the Atlantic Coast is predominantly English-speaking and was largely ignored by the Somoza regime. The costeños did not participate in the uprising against Somoza and viewed Sandinismo with suspicion from the outset.

Sandinista human rights abuses

Lacking support from the population in that part of the country, Sandinista troops committed their most controversal activities (as far as human rights are concerned) on the Atlantic Coast, including the forcible relocation of 8,500 Miskito from their land to create free-fire zones for combatting the Contras. They also killed and imprisoned several indigenous people suspected of Contra collaboration. On two separate occasions in 1981 and 1982, Sandinista troops committed massacres in which dozens of indigenous people were killed and buried in mass graves. [1] (

During the war Amnesty International and other groups reported that political prisoners in Sandinista prisons, such as in Las Tejas, were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured with electric shocks. They were denied food and water and kept in dark cubicles that had a surface of less than one square metre, known as chiquitas ("little ones.") These cubicles were too small to sit up in and had no sanitation and almost no ventilation.

In the mid-1980s, under pressure from human rights organizations and widespread international condemnation, the Sandinista government acknowledged errors in its dealings with the Atlantic Coast and successfully negotiated an end to the southern front of the Contra war. In fulfillment of the terms of that negotiation, the National Assembly unanimously passed an Autonomy Law in 1987 that made Nicaragua the first American nation to recognise its multiethnic nature, guaranteeing the economic, cultural, linguistic and religious rights demanded by the indigenous groups of the Atlantic Coast.

The Reagan administration remained opposed to the Sandinistas, and continued to support the Contras. The administration also funnelled USD $11 million in support of an opposition party, and refused aid to the country after it was devastated by Hurricane Joan in October 1988.

Relationship with the Catholic Church

The Sandinistas' relationship with the Catholic Church deteriorated as the Contra War dragged on. State media accused the Catholic Church of being reactionary and supporting the Contras. According to former President Ortega, "The conflict with the church was strong, and it cost us, but I don't think it was our fault... ...There were so many people being wounded every day, so many people dying, and it was hard for us to understand the position of the church hierarchy in refusing to condemn the contras." Hostility to the Catholic Church became so great that at one point, "...FSLN militants shouted down Pope John Paul II as he tried to say Mass." [2] (

Opposition (since 1990)

On February 26, 1990, Nicaragua held its second national election following the 1979 revolution, and this time the Sandinistas lost to the United Nicaraguan Opposition, an alliance of 14 opposition parties ranging from the conservative business organisation COSEP to the Nicaraguan Communist Party. UNO's candidate, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, replaced Daniel Ortega as president of Nicaragua.

Reasons for the Sandinista loss in 1990 are disputed. Defenders of the defeated government assert that Nicaraguans voted for the opposition due to the continuing U.S. economic embargo and potential Contra threat. Opponents claim that Contra warfare had largely died down, and that the Sandinistas had grown increasingly unpopular, particularly due to forced conscription and crackdowns on political freedoms. They also point out that the Sandinistas lost both the 1996 and 2001 elections with no Contra threat or outside pressures from the U.S.

After their loss, some of the Sandinista leaders held part of the property that had been nationalised by the FSLN government. This process became known as the piñata and was tolerated by the new government. Prominent Sandinistas also created a number of nongovernmental organisations to promote their ideas and social goals, such as the Augusto César Sandino Foundation (FACS).

Daniel Ortega remained the head of the FSLN, but his brother Humberto resigned from the party and remained at the head of the Sandinista Army, becoming a close confidante and supporter of Chamorro. The party also experienced a number of internal divisions, with prominent Sandinistas such as Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez resigning to protest what they described as heavy-handed domination of the party by Daniel Ortega. Ramírez also founded a separate political party, the Movement for the Renovation of Sandinismo (MRS); his faction came to be known as the renovistas, who favor a more social democratic approach than the orthodoxos, or hardliners. In the 1996 Nicaraguan election, Ortega and Ramírez both campaigned unsuccessfully as presidential candidates on behalf of their respective parties, with Ortega receiving 43 percent of the vote while Arnoldo Alemán of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party received 51 percent.

Daniel Ortega was re-elected as leader of the Sandinistas in 1998. Municipal elections in November 2000 saw a strong Sandinista vote, especially in urban areas, and former Tourism Minister Herty Lewites was elected mayor of Managua. This significant result led to expectations of a close race in the presidential elections scheduled for November 2001. Daniel Ortega and Enrique Bolaños of the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC) ran neck and neck in the polls for much of the campaign, but in the end the PLC won a clear victory.

Daniel Ortega was once again re-elected as leader of the Sandinistas in March 2002.


The flag of the FSLN consists of an upper half in red, the lower half in black and the letters F S L N in white.

Prominent Sandinistas

See also


  • Smith, Hazel (1992) Nicaragua: Self-determination and Survival, Pluto Press. ISBN 0745304753

External links

Preceded by:
Francisco Urcuyo Maliaños
Junta of National Reconstruction
Succeeded by:
Daniel Ortega Saavedra

Template:End boxde:Sandinistas es:Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional sv:Sandinisterna


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