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FSLN and the Guerrillas

The Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional--FSLN) was formally organized in Nicaragua in 1961. Founded by José Carlos Fonseca Amador, Silvio Mayorga, and Tomás Borge Martínez, the FSLN began in the late 1950s as a group of student activists at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua--UNAN) in Managua. Many of the early members were imprisoned. Borge spent several years in jail, and Fonseca spent several years in exile in Mexico, Cuba, and Costa Rica. Beginning with approximately twenty members in the early 1960s, the FSLN continued to struggle and grow in numbers. By the early 1970s, the group had gained enough support from peasants and students groups to launch limited military initiatives.

On December 27, 1974, a group of FSLN guerrillas seized the home of a former government official and took as hostages a handful of leading Nicaraguan officials, many of whom were Somoza relatives. With the mediation of Archbishop Obando y Bravo, the government and the guerrillas reached an agreement on December 30 that humiliated and further debilitated the Somoza regime. The guerrillas received US$1 million ransom, had a government declaration read over the radio and printed in La Prensa, and succeeded in getting fourteen Sandinista prisoners released from jail and flown to Cuba along with the kidnappers. The guerrilla movement's prestige soared because of this successful operation. The act also established the FSLN strategy of revolution as an effective alternative to Udel's policy of promoting change peacefully. The Somoza government responded to the increased opposition with further censorship, intimidation, torture, and murder.

In 1975 Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the National Guard launched another violent and repressive campaign against the FSLN. The government imposed a state of siege, censoring the press, and threatening all opponents with detention and torture. The National Guard increased its violence against individuals and communities suspected of collaborating with the Sandinistas. In less than a year, it killed many of the FSLN guerrillas, including one of its founders, José Carlos Fonseca Amador. The rampant violation of human rights brought national and international condemnation of the Somoza regime and added supporters to the Sandinista cause.

In late 1975, the repressive campaign of the National Guard and the growth of the group caused the FSLN to split into three factions. These three factions--Proletarians (Proletarios), Prolonged Popular War, and the Insurrectional Faction, more popularly known as the Third Way--insisted on different paths to carry out the revolution. The Proletarian faction, headed by Jaime Wheelock Román, followed traditional Marxist thought and sought to organize factory workers and people in poor neighborhoods. The Prolonged War faction, led by Tomás Borge and Henry Ruiz after the death of Fonseca, was influenced by the philosophy of Mao Zedong and believed that a revolution would require a long insurrection that included peasants and labor movements. The Third Way faction was more pragmatic and called for ideological pluralism. Its members argued that social conditions in Nicaragua were ripe for an immediate insurrection. Led by Daniel José Ortega Saavedra and his brother Humberto Ortega Saavedra, the Third Way faction supported joint efforts with non-Marxist groups to strengthen and accelerate the insurrection movement against Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The FSLN's overall growing success led the factions to gradually coalesce, with the Third Way's political philosophy of pluralism eventually prevailing.

The End of the Anastasio Somoza Debayle Era

United States support for President Somoza waned after 1977, when the administration of United States President Jimmy Carter made United States military assistance conditional on improvements in human rights. International pressure, especially from the Carter administration, forced President Somoza to lift the state of siege in September 1977. Protests and antigovernment demonstrations resumed although the National Guard continued to keep an upper hand on the FSLN guerrillas.

During October 1977, a group of prominent Nicaraguan businesspeople and academics, among then Sergio Ramírez Mercado--known as Los Doce (the Group of Twelve)--met in Costa Rica and formed an anti-Somoza alliance. Los Doce strengthened the FSLN by insisting on Sandinista representation in any post-Somoza government. Nevertheless, opposition to the dictatorship remained divided. Capital flight increased, forcing President Somoza to depend on foreign loans, mostly from United States banks, to finance the government's deficit.

The dictatorship's repression of civil liberties and the lack of representative institutions slowly led to the consolidation of the opposition and armed resistance. The Somoza regime continually threatened the press, mostly the newspaper La Prensa and the critical editorials of its publisher and Udel leader, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal. The final act in the downfall of the Somoza era began on January 10, 1978, when Chamorro was assassinated. Although his assassins were not identified at the time, evidence implicated President Somoza's son and other members of the National Guard. The opposition held the president and his guards responsible for Chamorro's murder, thus provoking mass demonstrations against the regime. The Episcopate of the Nicaraguan Roman Catholic Church issued a pastoral letter highly critical of the government, and opposition parties called for Anastasio Somoza Debayle's resignation. On January 23, a nationwide strike began, including the public and private sectors; supporters of the stride demanded an end to the dictatorship. The National Guard responded by further increasing repression and using force to contain and intimidate all government opposition. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, meanwhile, asserted his intention to stay in power until the end of his presidential term in 1981. The general strike paralyzed both private industry and government services for ten days. The political impasse and the costs to the private sector weakened the strike, and in less than two weeks most private enterprises decided to suspend their participation. The FSLN guerrillas launched a series of attacks throughout the country, but the better-equipped National Guard was able to maintain military superiority.

Indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population and abuses of human rights by National Guard members further tarnished the international image of the Somoza government and damaged the economy. In February 1978, the United States government suspended all military assistance forcing Somoza to buy weapons and equipment on the international market. The Nicaraguan economy continued its decline; the country suffered from increased capital flight, lack of investment, inflation, and unemployment.

Although still fragmented, opposition to the Somoza regime continued to grow during 1978. In March, Alfonso Robelo Callejas, an anti-Somoza businessman, established the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement (Movimiento Democrático Nicaragüense--MDN). In May 1978, the traditional Conservative Party joined Udel, Los Doce, and the MDN in creating the Broad Opposition Front (Frente Amplio de Oposición--FAO) to try to pressure President Somoza for a negotiated solution to the crisis. Although the FSLN was not represented in the FAO, the participation of Los Doce in the FAO assured a connection between the FSLN and other opposition groups. The FSLN responded to the FAO in July by establishing a political arm, the United People's Movement (Movimiento del Pueblo Unido--MPU). The MPU included leftist labor groups, student organizations, and communist and socialist parties. The MPU also promoted armed struggle and a nationwide insurrection as the only means of overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship.

The FSLN strengthened its position on August 22, 1978, when a group of the Third Way faction, led by Edén Pastora Gómez (also known as Commander Zero--Comandante Cero), took over the National Palace and held almost 2,000 government officials and members of Congress hostage for two days. With mediation from Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, as well as from the Costa Rican and Panamanian ambassadors, the crisis was solved in two days. The results of the negotiations favored the insurrection and further tarnished the government's image. President Somoza had no alternative but to meet most of the rebels' demands, including the release of sixty FSLN guerrillas from prison, media dissemination of an FSLN declaration, a US$500,000 ransom, and safe passage for the hostage takers to Panama and Venezuela. The attack electrified the opposition. The humiliation of the dictatorship also affected morale within the National Guard, forcing Anastasio Somoza Debayle to replace many of its officers to forestall a coup and to launch a recruitment campaign to strengthen its rank and file. Fighting broke out throughout the country, but the National Guard, despite internal divisions, kept recapturing most of the guerrilla-occupied territories.

By the end of 1978, the failure of the FAO to obtain a negotiated solution increased the stature of the insurrection movement. In October, Los Doce withdrew from the negotiation process when the FAO persisted in seeking a negotiated settlement with the dictator, and many of FAO's members resigned in protest over the negotiations with Somoza. The insurrection movement, meanwhile, gathered strength and increased the fighting. The Somoza regime was further isolated and discredited when in November the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a report charging the National Guard with numerous violations of human rights. The report was followed by a United Nations (UN) resolution condemning the Nicaraguan government. In December 1978, the FSLN was further strengthened when Cuban mediation led to an agreement among the three FSLN factions for a united Sandinista front. Formal unification of the FSLN occurred in March 1979.

The Sandinista Revolution

A mediation process led by the OAS collapsed during January 1979, when President Somoza refused to hold a national plebiscite and insisted on staying in power until 1981. As fighting increased, the Nicaraguan economy faced a severe economic crisis, with a sharp decline in agricultural and industrial production, as well as high levels of unemployment, inflation, defense spending, and capital flight. The government debt also increased mostly as a result of defense expenditures and the gradual suspension of economic support from all international financial institutions.

On February 1, 1979, the Sandinistas established the National Patriotic Front (Frente Patriótico Nacional--FPN), which included Los Doce, the PLI, and the Popular Social Christian Party (Partido Popular Social Cristiano--PPSC). The FPN had a broad appeal, including political support from elements of the FAO and the private sector. After the formal unification of the Sandinista guerrillas in March, heavy fighting broke out all over the country. By then the FSLN was better equipped, with weapons flowing from Venezuela, Panama, and Cuba, mostly through Costa Rica. The FSLN launched its final offensive during May, just as the National Guard began to lose control of many areas of the country. In a year's time, bold military and political moves had changed the FSLN from one of many opposition groups to a leadership role in the anti-Somoza revolt.

On June 18, a provisional Nicaraguan government in exile, consisting of a five-member junta, was organized in Costa Rica. Known as the Puntarenas Pact, an agreement reached by the new government in exile called for the establishment of a mixed economy, political pluralism, and a nonaligned foreign policy. Free elections were to be held at a later date, and the National Guard was to be replaced by a nonpartisan army. The members of the new junta were Daniel José Ortega Saavedra of the FSLN, Moisés Hassan Morales of the FPN, Sergio Ramírez Mercado of Los Doce, Alfonso Robelo Callejas of the MDN, and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of La Prensa's editor. Panama was the first country to recognize the junta. By the end of June, most of Nicaragua was under FSLN control, with the exception of the capital. President Somoza's political and military isolation finally forced him to consider resignation. The provisional government in exile released a government program on July 9 in which it pledged to organize an effective democratic regime, promote political pluralism and universal suffrage, and ban ideological discrimination--except for those promoting the "return of Somoza's rule." By the second week of July, President Somoza had agreed to resign and hand over power to Francisco Maliano Urcuyo, who would in turn transfer the government to the Revolutionary Junta. According to the agreement, a cease-fire would follow, and defense responsibilities would be shared by elements of the National Guard and the FSLN.

On July 17, 1979, Anastasio Somoza Debayle resigned, handed over power to Urcuyo, and fled to Miami. The former Nicaraguan dictator then established residence in Paraguay, where he lived until September 1980, when he was murdered, reportedly by leftist Argentine guerrillas. After President Somoza left Nicaragua in 1979, many members of the National Guard also fled the country, seeking asylum in neighboring countries, particularly in Honduras and Guatemala. Others turned themselves in to the new authorities after the FSLN took power, on promises of amnesty. They were subsequently tried and many served jail terms. The five-member junta arrived in the city of León a day after Somoza's departure, on July 18. Urcuyo tried to ignore the agreement transferring power, but in less than two days, domestic and international pressure drove him to exile in Guatemala. On July 19, the FSLN army entered Managua, culminating the Nicaraguan revolution. The insurrection left approximately 50,000 dead and 150,000 Nicaraguans in exile. The five-member junta entered the Nicaraguan capital the next day and assumed power, reiterating its pledge to work for political pluralism, a mixed economic system, and a nonaligned foreign policy.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:28:51 ZULU