How Nicaragua’s good guys turned bad

Carmen Herrera traces the history of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, from socialist liberators to ‘institutional dictators’, under the increasingly brutal rule of Daniel Ortega

A mural of Sandinista leader Augusto Cesar Sandino is seen on a wall, with bullet holes, at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) in Managua, Nicaragua 23 July 2018. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

‘It hurts to breathe, please don’t let me fall asleep. If I sleep I won’t be able to wake up again.’ These were the last words of 15-year old Álvaro Conrado, the first victim of a bullet in Nicaragua’s current freedom struggle.

He was taken to the first nearby hospital and was denied attention due to a macabre order from the government of Daniel Ortega that the wounded should receive no treatment. Álvaro bled to death during the search for another hospital that might see to him. His crime: bringing water to protesting students who had been attacked by the police.

It’s three months since the start of the civil society protests against the regime of Daniel Ortega – the once respected leader of the Sandinistas who overthrew the Somoza dynasty dictatorship that ruled with an iron fist between 1934 and 1979.

Today, Sandinismo has become a despotic regime, like the one it fought against. It has killed, in a spate of state terrorism, more than 300 people – among them students, peasant farmers, even children, in just over 90 days.

What began as a protest by students against government plans to cut social security benefits became a living nightmare. Before the current popular revolt, the country of six million people had enjoyed the lowest murder rate in the region.

But this paradise of apparent security was brewing its own destruction since the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the largest and most dominant party of the last few decades, cemented its power. This article attempts to describe and analyse what has gone wrong.

Demonstrators hold up crosses with backpacks during a march to demand the ouster of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua, 23 July 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

While it’s true that the FSLN never had a clearly defined doctrine, the party always had socialist leanings, at least at the level of discourse. Since the party’s founding in 1961, Christians, Marxists, professionals, intellectuals, small farmers, workers and students, all with different ideologies, have supported the FSLN’s goals as a broad movement of the left, and a commitment to try and avoid the dogmatism of some socialist and communist parties of the past.

To become a national movement, this armed political organization reclaimed the name ‘Sandinista’ as a way to fight for sovereignty and national autonomy, echoing the struggle led by Augusto C. Sandino, a liberal party militant, during the US military intervention from 1927 to 1932.

But the political diversity honeymoon did not last long, particularly at leadership levels. The mix of ideas and class backgrounds of party members caused serious ruptures and led to the formation of factions within the original clandestine military movement and as that movement evolved into an electoral party. There were already three distinct factions before the Sandinista armed victory of 1979: the Guerra Popular Prolongada (GPP), the Proletarians and the Terceristas, the so-called ‘Third Way’. These factions differed more in political and military tactics than in ideology.

While some thought the FSLN should overthrow the dictatorship and take power rapidly, members of the GPP faction thought the party needed to first consolidate its ideological base and work on grassroots consciousness-raising to support a socialist transformation in Nicaragua. The most pragmatic faction, the Terceristas, won out in part because they had money, international support and support from the private sector in Nicaragua. Once the Proletarian faction joined forces with them, they focused on channelling mass discontent in the country against the Somoza family dictatorship (1934-1979).

Nicaraguans took to the streets in significant numbers, some armed, though without military experience, along with the FSLN and its three factions, all convinced that the time to overthrow the dictatorship was now or never. Thirty-eight years ago, this mass movement triumphed after a fierce struggle that lasted 45 days. This so-called Final Offensive (5 June through 19 July 1979) was touched off after spontaneous rebellions in some of the country’s major cities.

It is important to remember that the FSLN was created by a few idealists in 1961 and was a clandestine military movement for 18 years before the party took power in 1979. During those 18 years of clandestine organizing, the party appeared and then faded from the public stage. The National Directorate – the party’s leadership council – had a collegial authority-sharing structure but its leadership was continually decimated by violence of the dictatorship.

A party founder, Apolonio Martinez, explains that at the end of the 1960s after many key FSLN leaders had been killed, party leaders decided on a strategy of silence except for the occasional well-planned and executed attacks. The armed occupation of the home of one of Somoza’s most loyal ministers, Jose Maria Castillo in December 1974, is one of the most famous of these operations. FSLN combatants took soldiers, politicians and even the US ambassador as hostages. Four years later in 1978, the young guerrillas occupied the National Palace. During both of these guerrilla actions Somoza agreed to FSLN demands to free political prisoners and to pay a ransom to help finance their cause.

When the FSLN finally took power in July 1979, the new leaders had scant experience with internal democratic structures, as the party had always operated under unrelenting attack from the Somoza regime. However, they did have a political strategy. Party leaders pledged to promote a model based on a mixed economy, political pluralism and a foreign policy of non-alignment.

With the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, the FSLN abolished Somoza’s repressive National Guard and created the Sandinista Popular Army and Sandinista Police based on the ideal of being the guardians of ‘the people’s happiness.’ The new government also set up a national council to rebuild the country with representatives from all sectors of society, but it was not long before council members began to quit. Soon the only member left was FSLN representative and writer Sergio Ramirez from the prestigious Group of Twelve.

Daniel Ortega sworn in for his first term as President
on January 10, 1985.  Credit: Chicho96 (CC 4.0)

In 1984, five years after the revolution, the FSLN called for elections but ultimately undermined political pluralism by limiting participation to certain parties while aligning itself politically and economically with the then-socialist camp of Eastern Europe. During this same period, US President Ronald Reagan declared war on Nicaragua through an economic blockade and the illegal financing of an army made up of former Somoza national guardsmen, US mercenaries and small farmers fed up with the revolution.

The FSLN’s leadership promoted a revolution with socialist tendencies, with access to public health and education, culture, agrarian reform, and the organized participation of different sectors to defend their rights. The party also welcomed international solidarity. For better or worse, because of all of these measures many people continued to believe in the party-as-savior. But as the war spread, the government had to start a military draft, forcing thousands of young people into the military. The draft, along with the growing internal contradictions within the party as the leadership became more estranged from its political base, undermined public support for the party. The US also invested several million dollars to fund the political opposition’s campaign to the FSLN. In 1990, after years of peace talks with the Contras and some democratization in rural areas, people voted against the party and the FSLN lost the elections to Violeta Chamorro, presidential candidate for the UNO opposition coalition and widow of journalist Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, assassinated by Somoza’s National Guard in January of 1978.On the heels of the electoral defeat, party leadership was tainted by another phenomenon that further ate away at its prestige: the Sandinista ‘piñata’ which was in its essence a significant sacking of state properties by the party leadership. This created the foundation for a new social economic base of power in Nicaragua’s post- war period.

Despite these examples of moral bankruptcy, political surveys showed that at least 35 per cent of the population continued to support the FSLN. The party maintained most of its international relationships with solidarity organizations and governments, and its reputation as a major force on the left.

The first split in the party: the Sandinista Renovation Movement

In its new position as an opposition party to the incoming Chamorro government, the now reeling party of the red-and-black broke into factions once again, with the first faction emerging in 1995 with the creation of the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS). The MRS arose during the debate over a series of constitutional reforms. At this time, the FSLN held two internal party congresses to debate the future of Sandinismo and democratization of the party. However, top party leaders turned a deaf ear to calls for democratization. FSLN members who also were elected representatives serving in Nicaragua’s National Assembly, (the country’s legislative branch), walked out of the party congress in protest, quit the FSLN and founded the MRS because of the party’s refusal to democratize.

A year later, and in the wake of the internal crisis sparked by the creation of the MRS and the loss of credibility among many of the party faithful, the now ‘Orteguista’ FSLN suffered its second consecutive electoral defeat. As the Nicaraguan daily and generally pro-Sandinista El Nuevo Diario explained it: ‘The party entered a vulnerable phase that it tried to ameliorate through a strategy of governing from below [a slogan Ortega had introduced days after his first electoral defeat in 1990] by organizing strikes and protests to destabilize the government of Arnoldo Alemán,’ the right-wing mayor of Managua who was elected president in 1996.

The Second Split in the Party: Rape Charges and Backroom Deals

In March of 1998, many Sandinista supporters were shaken by the explosive accusations made by Zoilamérica Narváez Murillo, Daniel Ortega’s stepdaughter, who charged her stepfather with sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment. She told news reporters that the assault, rape and harassment began when she was 11-years-old and continued for 12 years (see New York Times, March 29, 1998). Ortega and his closest advisors closed ranks. Zoilamérica’s mother (now Vice President) Rosario Murillo publicly defended Ortega and declared that her daughter had been ‘brainwashed’. A number of party officials who defended Narváez Murillo were expelled from the party.

A year after the rape allegations and four years after the MRS split from the FSLN, in December of 1999, Daniel Ortega signed an agreement with then-president Arnoldo Alemán of the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), to reform the constitution and carve up state power between the FSLN and his rightist party. This agreement which Nicaraguans refer to derogatorily as ‘El Pacto’ – signaling shady backroom dealing – lowered the margin for winning elections to 35 per cent of the vote (during the two prior elections, in 1990 and 1996, the FSLN won 40 per cent and 38 per cent of the vote, respectively). This agreement significantly increased Ortega’s power, laid the groundwork for his future re- election and severely weakened the rule of law in Nicaragua, a legacy that continues today.

At that time, El Nuevo Diario reported that dissident Sandinistas filled the halls of the National Assembly to voice their disagreement and vote against Ortega’s new deal with the Liberal Party. But the dealmakers prevailed, with the Ortega-controlled FSLN casting 30 votes and Alemán PLC casting 35 votes. Several key FSLN leaders quit the party in protest, including FSLN elected legislative representatives Mónica Baltodano and Victor Hugo Tinoco, and Victor Tirado, a former commander in the nine-man FSLN directorate and delegate to the Central American Parliament. In fact, two-thirds of the FSLN’s highest governing body, the National Directorate, distanced themselves from the party with only Tomás Borge and Bayardo Arce supporting Ortega and his new deal with President Alemán.

A demonstrator walks by posters demanding justice for the victims of protests to oust Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega during a gathering to mark one hundred days of anti-government protests, in Managua, Nicaragua 26 July 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

The Third and Final Party Split in 2005

In the lead-up to the 2006 elections, FSLN Secretary Daniel Ortega, strengthened by his pact with the rightist government, and with the support of government technocrats in different state agencies, distanced himself further from the party’s grassroots through a strategy led by his wife, Rosario Murillo. Murillo abandoned former party symbols like the red and black flag and forged an alliance with the Catholic hierarchy. She began dressing all in white and promoted a former Contra leader, Jaime Morales Carazo, as the FSLN’s vice-presidential candidate. Murillo crafted a new conciliatory message based on a Christian discourse, which had virtually nothing to do with the original ideals of Sandinismo.

Though the new discourse sounded good, this latest shift meant pushing out the Sandinista old guard, including former historical guerrilla combatants and supporters who were still moral leaders in their communities. These grassroots leaders had become poorer as the party leadership became richer. Murillo’s new political strategy succeeded and helped the FSLN win the majority of municipalities between 1996 and 2006.

Nicaraguans have seen just about everything in politics, but they had never seen a married couple as president and vice president

The FSLN won back the presidency in 2006. Right after the election, the party created a new Sandinista Youth organization based on its version of Christian ideology, not the FSLN’s revolutionary ideology. The new organization even had a theme song dedicated to Cardinal Miguel Obando, former FSLN nemesis (in fact, before the election, Ortega married his long-time partner Rosario Murillo, in a wedding officiated by Cardinal Obando).

Yet, as legendary revolutionary poet and liberation theologian Ernesto Cardenal put it the year before the elections, ‘The FSLN no longer exists. It’s just an electoral party to put Ortega in power again.’ Cardenal added that the party had given all state power to Ortega and was allowing him to ‘become fabulously rich.’ The Nicaragua constitution prohibited a president serving for consecutive terms. However, an FSLN-controlled Supreme Court overturned that constitutional ban, allowing Ortega to run for president again in 2011. After he won, again, in 2014, the Nicaraguan National Assembly, dominated by the El Pacto machine, voted to scrap presidential limits entirely (the opposition walked out in protest), allowing Ortega to run for office and serve as president, indefinitely.

From 2007 to 2017, the new PRI-style FSLN dominated by Ortega and Murillo disbanded former grassroots Sandinista organizations and stripped party organizations of any political agency, including the key workers, agricultural, peasant and women’s associations. Ortega and Murillo coopted other organizations like the Nicaraguan Students Union while strengthening others like the National Worker’s Front (FNT), which functions as a government union and replaced the Sandinista Worker’s Union (CST). The FNT, which claims to represent the most impoverished workers in Nicaragua, is led by Gustavo Porras, an MD and current head of the National Assembly. Porras is an example of the so-called ‘new Sandinismo’, in which an upper middle-class doctor and congressman represents the working class.

Many NGOs supported Ortega’s candidacy in the 2006 elections, including numerous women’s organizations. Yet immediately after Ortega won this election, he declared war on these organizations and attacked international organizations like Oxfam for supporting national NGOs. NGO offices were ransacked and their leaders accused of destabilizing the country, despite a lack of evidence. This was the beginning of a 10 year tenacious and hostile campaign by Ortega and Murillo to destroy independent civic organizations.

Pro-government supporters sit in a barricade after clashes with demonstrators in the indigenous community of Monimbo in Masaya, Nicaragua 17 July 2018. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

PRI-Style Politics: Handouts and Widespread Abstention

At the same time, the Ortega government created new community structures that were complete failures such as the Citizen Power Councils, Sandinista Leadership Councils and Family Committees, all entities that historic grassroots Sandinista neighbourhood leaders never joined. These new organizations were similar to clientelist organizations set up by the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) in Mexico with the aim of consolidating and ensuring its power. The Ortega government used these groups to hand out zinc roofing, food and other goods – essentially, political handouts that ended up in the hands of family members and friends of the Ortega regime, and eventually were sold in local markets. This corruption at the grassroots level further undermined respect for the FSLN.

Many former grassroots Sandinista leaders who were still committed to revolutionary ideals distanced themselves from the official party and its practices. Along with these new clientelist, PRI-type organizations, the Ortega government set up the much-feared paramilitary ‘shock’ forces to terrorize dissidents. These groups began to harass people who had never stopped protesting the growing corruption and the government’s abandonment of revolutionary ideals. Meanwhile, the historic base of the Sandinista party, confused and deeply disturbed, reacted by not voting in fraudulent elections resulting in high levels of abstention during the rigged re-election of Daniel Ortega in 2011.Ortega achieved total control over the country’s political structures when he ran for re-election in 2016, this time with his wife Rosario Murillo as his running mate. The Ortega-Murillo team was thus able to consolidate the family dynasty it had been carefully building since 2007.

In the 11th year of the Ortega government, it is clear that the majority of the discontent comes from the grassroots, including the Sandinista base

Nicaraguans have seen just about everything in politics, but they had never seen a married couple as president and vice president. In April 2018, just 15 months after the election, Nicaraguans exploded. Nicaragua’s political processes seem to disintegrate every 10 years, and it seems that time has run out for Ortega and Murillo. Nicaraguans are quite simply, fed up. And after 11 years, the official Sandinista organizations that continued to limp along are now joining that fed-up majority. This happened first in 2015 when a group of small farmers joined others to protest the environmentally devastating ‘Canal Law 840’ that would have created an inter-oceanic canal in Nicaragua and sold the country out to a Chinese entrepreneur (the project remains on the books, but the canal has not been built, as the entrepreneur ran into financial difficulties).

The lid flew off this Pandora’s box of accumulated collective rage with the ‘April Insurrection’, when people flooded the streets in enormous marches after the Ortega government beat and murdered 40 students and young Nicaraguans for protesting. The protests were sparked by government measures to limit pension payments but quickly snowballed into a grassroots struggle to throw out the presidential power couple. Just one month after student protests, most cities, including those long considered traditional Sandinista bastions have risen up against the Ortega regime. Government security forces continue to repress protesters and the country is paralyzed.

These protests are not the work of the CIA, the National Endowment for Democracy, Donald Trump, or any other international conspiracy. Give Nicaraguans some credit. In the 11th year of the Ortega government, it is clear that the majority of the discontent comes from the grassroots, including the Sandinista base. Evidence of that is when party leaders faithful to Ortega ordered their college student members to attack the student protesters, students from several major universities – the National Agrarian University, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua, the UNAN de Managua y León, and the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería – all refused.

Government security forces then targeted the universities, arresting, beating and killing some of the students. The cities and neighbourhoods that long symbolized Sandinista resistance to the Somoza dictatorship, including Monimbo, Matagalpa, León, Jinotepe, Diriamba and Estelí, are where students and citizens are rising up against the dictatorial regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. Isn’t this the process that sociologists call ‘implosion’?

And these are the goals of the FSLN, from 1969, that were never met: ‘people power, a special development plan for the Atlantic Coast and region of maximum abandonment, land for farmers, an end to exploitation and misery, women’s liberation, administrative honesty, a revolution in culture and education, respect for religious beliefs, an independent foreign policy, Central American unity, and solidarity among all people...’

Carmen Herrera Vallejos is a Nicaraguan journalist, based in Managua. She has more than 25 years’ experience in political, economic and social analysis and is Nicaragua correspondent for the progressive, Peru-based Noticias Aliadas. She also writes for the online magazine