The Rise and Fall of the FSLN

September 25, 2007

Twenty-five years ago, amid the urban insurrection against the brutal regime of Anastasio Somoza, teenagers armed with no more than pistols, hunting rifles and homemade explosives repeatedly stood their ground behind ramshackle barricades against the onslaught of the dictatorship’s U.S.-trained National Guard. In the heat of the siege, the boys and girls, or muchachos, as they were called, demanded to know when the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) would arrive to relieve them. These youths in cities like Managua, Masaya, León and Estelí all received the same frightening answer: “You are the Sandinista Front.”

A decade earlier, university students fleeing the dictatorships’ secret police took to the mountains to join the Front’s guerrillas and were equally surprised. They expected to find hundreds of militants undergoing rigorous training in a well-organized camp. Instead, they were shocked to see that the “base” was little more than a few dozen comrades on the run. At the time, the Front was experiencing a series of military setbacks, incapable of securing a permanent territorial foothold in the countryside, let alone urban areas.

Yet it was the Sandinista myth-along with the hundreds of muchachos who offered their lives on its behalf-that finally forced the unexpected collapse of the National Guard and the downfall of Somoza. With its leaders clad in green fatigues, the FSLN seized power and proceeded to implement one of the last social revolutions of the 20th century. The world watched the new Central American experiment with an enthusiasm matched only by the venomous fervor of Washington’s subsequent military and economic destabilization campaign.

The July 19, 1979, victory was less the product of strategic or military genius than of two more important factors: widespread hatred for Somoza and the identification of the FSLN as the embodiment of the nationalist hero Augusto Sandino. The allusion to Sandino was important, because he had fought the Marines of the U.S. occupation from 1927 to 1933, only to be assassinated a year later by the first Somoza—Anastasio’s father. The FSLN’s principal founder, Carlos Fonseca Amador, had wisely and purposefully injected the legacy of Sandino to broaden the Front’s appeal and to underscore the importance of nationalism and anti-imperialism.

Just months before achieving victory, the three distinct “tendencies” within the FSLN—the Prolonged People’s War group, the urban proponents of the Proletariat Tendency and the Insurrectionist Tendency—had been at each other’s throats over deep ideological differences. The three factions, each with their own leaders, united with the helpful prodding of Fidel Castro who convinced them to share leadership in a single political-military strategy. Demands for unity also came from the ranks of fighters and sympathizers who cared more about getting Somoza out than bringing Lenin or Mao into the fray. As the armed resistance grew, particularly after the 1978 murder of popular newspaper editor Pedro J. Chamorro, the insurrectionist strategy won out.

The day the FSLN assumed power, it remained shrouded in mystery. In fact, July 19 was the first time many Nicaraguans, including long-time Sandinista fighters, caught a glimpse of most of the Front’s leaders. The nine-member leadership collective known as the “National Directorate,” quickly seized upon the myth and acclaim of the revolution to veil the bitter differences existing among them. Leading members of each tendency made up the National Directorate, with Daniel Ortega and his brother Humberto assuming the top civilian and military posts in the new government.

Doctrinaire ideology took a backseat as the leadership and cadres kept to themselves the ideological schisms among the alliance. This decidedly “tactical” necessity for upholding a united front, bought them time to deepen Sandinista control over key institutions while pushing forward structural changes under a rubric of pluralism, a mixed economy and non-alignment. Necessity became a virtue as Christians, middle-class sectors and even the progeny of the oligarchy became part of the Sandinista movement and government. The broad support base and the divergent tendencies required collective leadership within the FSLN. Likewise, the Revolution, for the time being, opted out of choosing a single leader and was flexible in the definition and implementation of a program.

Unwittingly, Washington’s decision to wage war on the Nicaraguan Revolution forced the FSLN and its government to turn tactics into strategy. That is, use their diverse base and collective leadership to consolidate and legitimize their power in the face of mounting U.S. aggression. Despite then-hardliner Humberto Ortega’s claims that “we will not raffle off power,” Washington’s hostility caused the FSLN to make several political concessions. The government organized elections in 1984, drafted a bourgeois democratic constitution, gave space to dissident parties in a more powerful National Assembly and tolerated some media reforms.

Throughout the 1980s, preserving unity at all costs meant heeding collectivism. All nine Directorate members made key government decisions, not only President Daniel Ortega, or even its five most prominant members. The nine shared a Marxist perspective, introducing themselves to the Kremlin as leaders of a “socialist-oriented” nation, but party members lacked the serious political education required to make democratic centralism more democratic and less authoritarian. Indeed, much of the post-1979 organizational trappings reflected a Leninist model. Ministers and other top-level officials were drawn almost exclusively from the Sandinista Assembly, a group of some 70 persons that became a consultative body wielding even less power than the central committees of communist parties elsewhere. Behind the vanguard of select cadres, stood hundreds of “sympathizers” who carried out party-assigned duties. The war against the Contras and the United States reinforced this top-down political culture, establishing personality cults rather than ideology or democratic discussion. The National Directorate met regularly on Friday mornings and by the afternoon the state and party apparatus would have their marching orders.

Formal party structures became increasingly dependent on the state for their operation and orientation, fusing political and administrative responsibilities. And the party itself became bureaucratized, overlapping heavily with state structures. Jokes abounded calling the party the “Ministry of Political Mobilization.” A reference to the delegation of governmental initiatives to the party when tasks required mass participation and overtime for government workers. But extraordinary achievements that never would have been realized on governmental effort alone were made in this way: the 1980 literacy crusade, the popular health campaigns and the creation of a mass military force to fight the U.S.-backed Contras. The National Directorate made full avail of the myth and the sense of historic mission to transform Nicaragua. They sought to recruit a new generation that hadn’t fought in the war against Somoza, instead, the new generation waged war against illiteracy, plunging illiteracy rates from 52% to less than 13% in just a year. Later, that same generation took up arms to fight the Contras, although more reluctantly, as evidenced by the eventual instatement of the military draft.

U.S. martial, economic and ideological aggression inevitably determined the course of the nation and the evolution of the party in eight of the 11 years the FSLN held power. Iron discipline and unquestioned verticalism within the party was by and large pivotal in the survival of the Revolution during the U.S. barrage, but that same discipline and authoritarianism also magnified the FSLN’s many mistakes. Political miscalculations were the product of both external pressures and increasing detachment between citizens and government, base-level party members and leaders. Grossly overestimated, for example, was the people’s capacity to endure suffering and shortages, while the FSLN leadership and the cadres in the bureaucracy remained noticeably unaffected. And like many social revolutions before it, the Sandinistas confronted small landowners who refused to comprise a rural proletariat as part of an agrarian revolution. Reluctance by the small landowners, the government’s bureaucratic incompetence and U.S. meddling turned the confrontation brutal. What began as a class-based confrontation over agricultural policy became a bloody battle of counterinsurgency against small and large landowners who cast their lot with the Contras. Militarily, it was a success, but it came at insurmountable social and moral costs, given the heavy-handed Sandinista security forces.

Prodded by the war, Directorate members pushed aside non-FSLN sectors within the government, creating bureaucratic fiefdoms loyal to their respective chiefs. The party factions responded administratively to a Directorate member. The most skilled cadres assumed responsibilities concerning the military and diplomatic defense of the Revolution. Deprived of capable administrators, government organs seeking to address people’s needs became weak and designers of ineffective policy. Hardest hit by these inadequacies was the countryside, where the Contras and the opposition could then count on fertile recruitment grounds. The FSLN also stumbled in its handling of the legal opposition political parties and media, small-scale farmers, the Church hierarchy and the Miskito indigenous population. Finally, attempting to prevent a total economic collapse in 1988, the Sandinista government imposed a brutal International Monetary Fund-style package of austerity measures and currency devaluations with little consultation and explanation, causing further impoverishment and resentment.

Signs of decomposition were rife in the FSLN. With the unabashedly vertical command structure came arrogance, luxurious lifestyles, and personal and institutional vices. According to Chilean journalist Marta Harnecker, “The conduct of many Sandinista leaders provided fodder for negative press campaigns by the opposition, and leading [sic] to an increased separation between Sandinista leaders and their support base.”[1] Jesuit priest and one-time economic advisor to the Sandinista government Xabier Gorostiaga recalls how “the ‘bourgeoisification’ of the Sandinista leadership increased their isolation from people’s real needs.” What caused its division and disintegration, writes Gorostiaga, “was the personal ambition of the leadership who sought the success of their own projects rather than the consolidation of an alternative model.” The tremendous moral and human effort by a small republic in the Empire’s backyard was eventually undermined and corrupted by a “demoralizing ethical hara-kiri,” he adds.[2] Eduardo Galeano laments that the Sandinistas lost the 1990 presidential elections “on account of a devastating and draining war. And afterwards, as usually happens, some of the leaders sinned against hope, incredibly turning against their own sayings and their own work.”[3]

The relentless U.S. destabilization campaign and the crippling economic embargo embittered much of the population against the Sandinista government, which had seriously underestimated the viciousness of Washington’s reprisals for the logistical support provided to El Salvador’s leftist guerillas throughout the 1980s. Fending off the U.S.-backed Contras was consuming 60% of the budget, forcing the FSLN to choose between implanting a brand of wartime communism and negotiating a way out. It chose the latter. The Church, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and Democrats in the U.S. Congress mediated a political transition and the organizing of free elections. Unfazed, the FSLN mistakenly believed it could stall and simultaneously defeat the Contras, stabilize the economy and win an election.

Just as the Sandinista Front awoke one July day to find itself at the seat of Nicaragua’s government, so too on February 25, 1990, it awoke in a state of disbelief, having lost the presidential election to a U.S.-assembled coalition of parties headed by Violeta Chamorro. Washington had successfully transformed the election into a virtual referendum on the war. The choice, as framed by the U.S. government, was between continued war and resistance with the Sandinistas on the one hand, and an end to war and aggression on the other. People’s diminished capacity to resist was the result of the misappropriation of a project worth defending, and the failure of party democracy and political education or lacks thereof.[4]

The Sandinista Front became a legal left opposition party, having no inkling of what either “opposition” or “left” truly meant, especially in the dawning of a neoliberal, post-Soviet era. The unity in the party exacted by war and the preferred muzzling of internal debate disintegrated. Party members spoke out brazenly about members of the National Directorate. After more than a decade, the nine leaders lost their demigod status; some even left for Harvard to study public administration.

Tensions that had simmered for over a decade boiled over. The period of accepting orders without question was gone, and for once, the Directorate was forced to listen. With internal consensus gone, Sandinista rank and file rebuked leaders for the mistakes and abuses of the previous decade. For many in the FSLN, allegiance to the party had been more a question of wartime discipline than ideological or programmatic conviction. Once the need for discipline was gone and privileged access to the state severed, many left the party. What many considered sources of Sandinista strength—collective leadership, broad class composition and the downplaying of dogma—were now envisaged as sources of weakness and “ideological confusion.”

As economic and social conditions rapidly deteriorated after 1990, pressure grew within the FSLN for a clarification of strategy. Base-level militants cited the FSLN’s power and popularity and its continued presence in the army, police, bureaucracy, legislature and prominent social organizations. They demanded the party make use of its street muscle and force policy changes on the Chamorro government, if not topple the government itself. A leftist current materialized and in 1994 demanded “greater combativeness in defense of the poor, in its revolutionary vocation and its vanguardist nature.” An opposing wing, led by Ortega’s former Vice President Sergio Ramírez and a number of FSLN legislative deputies, argued against confrontation with the government, emphasizing negotiation over street credibility, believing polarization would only benefit the right. They reasoned that by promoting greater transparency, broad social consensus with a multi-class base and stability in international relations, the FSLN would win elections.

By this point Daniel Ortega had emerged as first among equals. His influence over party structures showed among the regional representatives gathering for the FSLN congress in 1994 that was to decide the composition of the party leadership. Ortega roundly defeated Ramírez. But this was less a victory for the “left” than for Ortega, who surfaced as the new caudillo. From then on, Ortega enacted the Ramírez strategy in practice, while exuding the combative strategy in rhetoric. Convinced he had the left in his pocket and having pushed out his more conservative opponents, Ortega began fortifying alliances with Nicaragua’s dominant capitalist groups and focused on winning over undecided voters. Despite his machinations, the party lost the 1996 election to Liberal Party (PLC) candidate Arnoldo Alemán, who ran on a clear-cut anti-Sandinista platform.

Traumatized by the electoral defeat and fearing retaliation from the new government, party members and sympathizers across the country closed ranks around Ortega. Again, the absence of political education and internal democracy haunted the FSLN. Ortega tightened his hold over the party faithful and the lingering party machinery, preventing a real break with the vertical leadership style ingrained on the FSLN.

Having to battle both neoliberalism and Orteguismo, social forces have found it difficult to articulate independent movements and alliances against neoliberalism. Sandinista dissidents may be prominent in the media and nongovernmental organizations, but they have failed to articulate an organized alternative, never mind an electoral one. Several have either failed to come to terms with their past in the party, or have given up on parties entirely. Others insist that the battle must take place within the party, because breaking with historical symbols infused in the popular sectors would be counterproductive. For so many poor, support for Ortega’s FSLN is a matter of faith and blind confidence. Ironically, strategists of the ruling PLC hope Ortega will run again precisely because of the polarization and U.S. opposition his candidacy would inspire.

Patronage politics rules the country and both major parties: the PLC and the FSLN. Only those loyal to Ortega made the ballot for municipal and legislative elections in 2000. Not until 2002 did the FSLN introduce primaries as a means of selecting party candidates, albeit only for city council. Critics of Ortega within the party remain on the sidelines awaiting change. Others have left the official party all together, still calling themselves Sandinistas, but preferring to do their political work independently. Many believe they had little choice, given the lack of long-term vision and serious proposals. In their view, the FSLN unsuccessfully abandoned its strategic calculus for immediate macro-political considerations.

For many, the high point of Sandinista prestige was the morning of February 26 when Ortega recognized the electoral victory of Violeta Chamorro—the first peaceful transition to an opposition government. Within a month, however, the prestige collapsed in the wake of the infamous piñata. Before turning over the government to Chamorro, the FSLN gutted state-owned resources, ostensibly to finance its conversion to an opposition party. Some Sandinista leaders assigned themselves state-owned properties and awarded their associates with house and land titles.

In May 1998, Ortega’s stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez, filed charges against him, saying she had been the subject of rape and abuse since the age of 11. In what was probably the most convincing evidence of Ortega’s lock on the party, including its women’s movement, party officials ignored Narváez’s accusation, herself a party militant. Then in 1999, to the dismay of even the party faithful, Ortega and then-President Alemán, one of the most despised and corrupt figures in contemporary Nicaragua, negotiated a pact. It provided for the distribution of state posts and changes in the constitution, which shutout independent electoral challengers.[5]

The political compromises made since the revolution must be judged in terms of what they have accomplished for Nicaragua’s poor. Unfortunately, the record is dismal. Per capita income is lower than pre-1979 levels and imports exceed exports by 30%. In the early 1990s, Nicaragua set the world record for the highest debt per capita. By the end of the decade, neoliberalism left the country with one of the largest income inequality gaps in the world. New shopping malls sprout up while 40% of school age children, mostly in rural areas, can’t afford to enroll in school because of World Bank-recommended user fees. According to Unicef, 57% of children fail to complete the sixth grade.[6] One quarter of the population is functionally illiterate, suffers from malnutrition, and has no access to basic health and services. Nicaragua dropped from 85 in 1990 to 118 in 2002 out of a possible 175 on the UN’s Human Development Index ranking. Despite all this, the FSLN urged teachers and health workers to rein in their demands and keep off the streets, so they would not upset the government’s 2003 negotiations with the IMF and the World Bank.

Given the disastrous social impacts of more than a decade of structural adjustment and staggering corruption, there is little doubt that the FSLN could lead a movement to transform, or at the very least question, the nation’s destructive path. The obstruction, however, is not capacity, but will. Ortega continues to believe in the possibility of re-election and in the meantime pursues a strategy of securing spaces and positions in the state apparatus for his loyal followers.

The very parameters of the FSLN’s political discussions along with the unquestioned authority of Secretary General Ortega simply highlight how far the Sandinista party has come from the principles of its first Secretary General and founder, Carlos Fonseca Amador. He correctly explained the purpose of revolution: “It is not a matter of replacing men in power, it is a matter of changing the social and economic structures of oppression.” Is today’s FSLN not part of the entrenched national power bloc, risking its own dismantlement? Will the FSLN be content to simply administer the liberal democratic institutions that it helped create, wheeling and dealing the distribution of the spoils?

That Sandinistas entertain such a course speaks volumes to the current conjuncture. Credit is due for the Revolution’s considerable accomplishments, but it fell far short of people’s aspirations for genuine economic and social democracy, let alone sovereignty. In its heyday, the FSLN failed to reconstitute Nicaraguan society in any revolutionary fashion. Today, its failure lies in its reluctance to contain or reverse neoliberalism’s sordid ideological and economic transformation of that same state and society. In fact, the Sandinista Revolution might in the end prove to be the stimulus that gave the right their present hegemony. As William Robinson argues elsewhere in this NACLA Report, “What took place in Nicaragua, more than in any other Central American country, was a circulation of elites, made possible (or unblocked), ironically, by the revolution” [See “The New Right…” p. 15].

It may well be that Fonseca’s dream appears unrealistic and unattainable in this imperial age when the United States is more determined than ever to micromanage the politics and economies of Central America. Yet, it is that dream that keeps alive the original Sandinista myth rooted in the hope for an alternative future for the dispossessed. The dream is also what drives the FSLN’s core constituency to give its vote of confidence in elections. But that confidence has a limit. Any hope for the future of the left in Nicaragua lies precisely in the possibility that the myth of Sandino and Sandinismo may once again transform the sad contemporary reality of the FSLN, Orteguismo and Nicaragua.

Alejandro Bendaña is founder and president of the Center for International Studies based in Managua. He served as the Nicaraguan Ambassador to the UN (1981-1982) and as Secretary General of the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry (1984-1990). He is author of several books, including La mística de Sandino (Centro de Estudios Internacionales, 1994) and Power Lines: U.S. Dominance in the New Global Order (Interlink Press, 1996), and is a member of NACLA’s editorial board.

1. Marta Harnecker, Events that Have Marked the Left, unpublished manuscript, 1999.
2. Xabier Gorostiaga, “The Legacy of a Life Intensely Lived,” Envio, Vol. 22, No. 267, October 2003, pp. 40-41.
3. Eduardo Galeano, Patas arriba: la escuela del nuevo mundo al revés (Buenos Aires: Catálogos, 2003), p. 322.
4. For example, see the interview with former Directorate member Mónica Baltodano in Adital, , November 24, 2003.
5. See Mónica Baltodano, “Nicaragua: hacia un nuevo pacto Alemán-Ortega,” Rebelión Internacional, December 4, 2003. Baltodano says, “The decisions [surrounding the new pact] demonstrate once again that the weight of the official decisions of the FSLN continue to be subordinated to the logic of the personal interests of Daniel, and to the closed logic of elitist transactions and distribution of power quotas, in isolation from the real problems of the country and of the people.”
6. “Creciendo sin educación,” La Prensa (Nicaragua), January 28, 2004.

Tags: Nicaragua, Sandinistas, politics, civil war, Daniel Ortega, democratization

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