Commentary Magazine

Nicaraguan Harvest

Exactly six years ago Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza fled his country before the victorious onslaught of a popular revolution. This was no ordinary episode in the history of Central America, a region where governments have often disappeared abruptly and under violent circumstances. Rather, it marked the end of more than thirty years of political domination by a single family, in which local forces of revolutionary change were aided and abetted by other governments in the region and including, at the very end, the United States. Though elements of the revolutionary leadership were troubling to the State Department and some members of Congress, the new regime in Nicaragua began its life with a generous legacy of optimism, hope, and good will, both at home and abroad. To some degree, this was not to be wondered at: several political generations of Nicaraguans had convinced themselves that anything would be better than Somoza, and sympathetic foreigners could only regard the dynasty of uniformed thugs which had governed that country since 1934 as, at best, a grotesque anachronism.

Moreover, Nicaragua was seen in July 1979 as a laboratory where all kinds of lessons learned from other places could be successfully applied. Almost immediately after the fall of Somoza, the tiny nation was almost literally overrun with foreign well-wishers bearing unsolicited advice—Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Swedish Social Democrats; Congressmen and AID officials from Washington; representatives of the governments of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama; and a remarkable assortment of revolutionary tourists—including, but not limited to, West German Trotskyists, Maryknoll nuns, Spanish Jesuits, Italian Marxists, and North Americans of all ages, classes, and conditions. Each of these groups expected the new regime in Nicaragua to validate its own peculiar notions of social and political change, though in the euphoria of those first days no one thought to ask whether one set of agendas was compatible with another. Nor did anyone apart from the authors of the 1980 Republican platform in the United States (and, ironically, some members of the new government in Managua) seriously consider the possibility that Nicaragua might become, like Cuba, an ally and client state of the Soviet Union. Rather, it was assumed on all sides that because the past had been so bad, the future had to be better.

The “future” is now here, and by the reckoning of all but the most inflexible apologists for the Nicaraguan regime, it is perceptibly and measurably worse. Nicaragua is not a wealthy country, but it has always been reasonably self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs, and also capable of producing or importing most basic consumer items. Indeed, over the past thirty-odd years, the living standards of the Nicaraguan people (like those in other Central American countries) had steadily risen, and the overall rates of economic growth had been, historically, quite impressive compared with most regions of the Third World. Since 1979, however, the indicators of Nicaragua’s economic performance have pointed unswervingly downward. Taking 1978 as a base year, in 1982 agriculture, the country’s principal source of foreign exchange, had declined 17 percent; industry had declined 18 percent; and commerce 27 percent. The only sector, in fact, during that four-year period which showed significant growth was the government, which had tripled in size since the current regime took power.

These stark figures represent a steady drop in living standards for the ordinary Nicaraguan. Private consumption fell in real terms by 12 percent in 1983 (the latest figures available), and official sources concede a 20-percent rate of unemployment. Salary levels have been frozen since 1981, and the annual rate of inflation has run in excess of 25 percent (according to Nicaraguan government figures). In spite of government subsidies for basic foodstuffs, for the first time in the nation’s history there are serious shortages of staple items.

It is true, as spokesmen for the regime often point out, that the Nicaraguan revolution occurred a mere seven years after a devastating earthquake which leveled Managua, the capital, and visited untold millions’ worth of destruction upon housing stocks, physical plant, and infrastructure. It is also true that, like other Central American countries, Nicaragua is suffering from a depression in the prices of its primary exports, and from increases in interest rates and in the cost of imported oil. However, unlike its neighbors, it has been the recipient of almost unlimited foreign assistance. Concretely, since 1979 the country has received some $3 billion in new foreign loans and $250 million in outright donations (including $118 million from the U.S. authorized during the Carter administration). At the same time, like other Central American countries, Nicaragua has been able to purchase oil from Mexico and Venezuela under preferential terms, and was permitted to “roll over” the old (Somoza-contracted) foreign debt with American banks—some $582 million—under exceptionally favorable circumstances. In addition, between July 1979 and November 1981, Nicaragua received an average of f 12 million in new lines of credit per month from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

To put matters in some perspective, during the past six years democratic Costa Rica, Nicaragua’s immediate neighbor to the south, has received a mere $250 million in international assistance from the United States and Western Europe. Thus, if Nicaragua has economic problems, they cannot be due to a lack of comprehension or even solidarity on the part of the outside world.



Nicaragua’s problems are not, however, primarily economic but political. They arise from the disarmingly simple fact that control of what was a political revolution against Somoza has been effectively seized by a cabal of Marxist-Leninists—the Sandinista Front—who believe themselves in exclusive possession of historical truth and authorized to impose it upon a largely unwilling populace. In some ways what has happened in Nicaragua is not much different from what occurred in Cuba some twenty years earlier. In both cases, a hated dictator was overthrown by an extremely broad coalition of forces, including the business community, students, labor, the traditional political class, even the U.S. embassy. But the coalition’s numerical preponderance was not sufficient in the immediate post-revolutionary period to counterbalance another group—heavily armed, better organized, more ruthless, and committed to a single unambiguous goal.

In Nicaragua, however, there were two crucial differences. The precedent of Cuba having been clearly established, no one could plead ignorance of the process whereby a democratic revolution in the Caribbean could be derailed into a totalitarian police state. Hence, the Sandinista Front had to take special care to reassure its democratic allies in the struggle against Somoza, as well as the United States and also other Latin American governments. This also meant that the actual rate at which the regime moved from control of the “commanding heights” to the institutions of daily life was bound to be much slower.

But more remarkable still was the fact that precisely because of the Cuban experience, Nicaragua’s well-wishers at home and abroad were desperately anxious to accept the Sandinistas’ stated commitments to pluralism, a mixed economy, and a non-aligned foreign policy. This was so because they shared the view that the tragic course of the Cuban revolution had been determined by the United States, whose alleged insensitivity to Castro’s needs presumably “drove” or “forced” him into the arms of the Soviet Union. By the time it had become clear that a policy of conciliation and even appeasement was having no impact whatsoever on the conduct of the Nicaraguan government, these well-wishers were rescued by the advent of a conservative Republican administration in Washington. This allowed them to avert their gaze from the unbecoming spectacle of the Sandinistas asphyxiating Nicaragua’s infant democracy in, as it were, the cradle, and to concentrate on the allegedly intemperate rhetoric of the White House, and later the iniquities, real or imagined, of the rebel force which arose to challenge the new dictatorship.

In retrospect it seems remarkable that so many otherwise well-informed people could believe that the Sandinistas were—or could come to be—a broadly representative political force responsive even in the most general way to the wishes of the Nicaraguan people. Their world view, their ideological commitments, even their strategies for achieving power were a matter of abundant historical record long before 1979. This much is clear from an important new monograph by David Nolan1 which examines in considerable detail what its author calls the “internal logic” of Sandinista ideology.

Founded in 1961, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) took its name from a guerrilla leader who had fought the American Marines in the 1920’s and was subsequently murdered by the first Somoza. General Sandino was not, however, a Marxist, so that the link between his reflexively nationalist movement and the FSLN is purely metaphoric and folkloric. For as Nolan shows, the Sandinistas have always been Marxist-Leninist, and beyond that, conspicuously loyal to the Soviet position in world affairs. At no time have they seriously contemplated an “independent” form of Marxism such as we are repeatedly told they might assume were the United States to alter its own policies toward them. (They have even gone so far as to continue diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than recognize the anti-Soviet government in Beijing, even though Taipei had strongly supported Somoza and had continued to provision him with weaponry to the very end of his rule.)

Moreover, although the leadership of the FSLN has split periodically, their differences have been purely methodological, pertaining only to the question of how to achieve power, not what to do with it once it has been attained. At times this has even meant temporarily shelving Marxist-Leninist rhetoric in order to reassure potential allies and, in the final phase of the struggle against Somoza, to persuade other countries to assist them with arms, base areas, and international recognition. Once in control of the army and police, the Sandinistas could afford to be more candid. To this effect, Nolan quotes Henry Ruiz, one of the nine members of the ruling National Directorate, who by June 1982 thought events sufficiently advanced to admit openly that

. . . the revolution’s honeymoon is coming to an end. By this I mean the romantic idea among those who believed that the Sandinista peoples’ revolution was an idyllic revolution in which the interests of a group of traitors and the interests of the real working people could be fused; a shortsighted point of view, from which our revolutionary directorate never suffered.

If this was so, it was only because the National Directorate, almost unique among observers of or other participants in the Nicaraguan revolution, had no desire to deceive itself. In that sense, the footnotes in Nolan’s book are perhaps more dramatic than the text. For they demonstrate that Sandinista notions of power and its purpose have long been readily available—not in the secret files of Somoza’s police or the computers of the Central Intelligence Agency, but to literate Nicaraguans in dozens of books, pamphlets, and periodicals, and to American policy-makers in the unclassified translations regularly circulated by Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) and the Latin American series of Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS).



At this point the Sandinistas have clearly won control of the guns, the ministries, the media, and the largest portion of the foreign liberal public. They have demobilized most of the other political parties and forces active in the struggle against Somoza, and driven most of their leaders into exile. The Sandinistas’ problem, however, remains how to extend their grip upon the institutions of civil society—the private sector, the peasantry, the labor movement, the Indian minorities on the Atlantic coast, and above all the Roman Catholic Church. As long as these groups exist as entities separate and apart from the Nicaraguan state, they will continue to resist Sandinista rule. The cost of this struggle in economic and human terms has already been very high, though if the resistance is defeated, it will be higher still.

The best account of how the Sandinistas grew from a small group of Cuban-trained guerrillas to their present eminence is that of Shirley Christian, formerly Central American correspondent of the Miami Herald now with the New York Times.2 While her book in many ways adds immeasurably to our knowledge of Nicaragua and the Sandinistas, her narrative of events between 1979 and 1981 tells us little that we could not have anticipated from a reading of Claire Sterling’s book on the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia.3 That is, the Sandinistas utilized the classic techniques of political domination first developed by Lenin in 1918-23—the organization of “broad fronts” under whose ostensible banner a vanguard seizes power; then the consolidation of that power through control of the organs of state security; the elimination, one by one, of quondam allies (“salami tactics”); and the creation of parallel organs (trade unions, peasant organizations, legislative bodies) to replace those which the vanguard cannot dominate. To which must be added a new Nicaraguan contribution to the repertoire—a plebiscite cleverly disguised as a competitive election.

One of the virtues of Shirley Christian’s book is that many chapters are subdivided chronologically. This allows us to see how little the growth of a totalitarian state in Nicaragua could have been a response to pressure from the United States government or the counterrevolutionary force which (until recently) it supported. Specifically, by the end of 1979, which is to say long before the Republican party had nominated Ronald Reagan and at a time when the Carter administration was actively courting the new Nicaraguan regime with money, technical assistance, and huge quantities of food and medicine, the Sandinistas had already imposed press censorship; established neighborhood surveillance committees to monitor the lives of ordinary citizens; and begun to establish—with Cuban assistance—the largest army and the most elaborate domestic police apparatus in Central America.

In 1980, again before the change of administrations in Washington, the Sandinista Front had peremptorily increased the size of the Council of State to 47 members and reapportioned the seats in its favor; postponed promised elections indefinitely; signed a party-to-party agreement with the Communist party of the Soviet Union; and begun to harass the leaders of Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights.

In March 1981, two months after the Reagan administration took office, the contras were organized. For most of that year they were a force of negligible military significance, a few hundred men recruited mainly from the ranks of Somoza’s National Guard by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and rather inexpertly advised by Argentine military officers and counterintelligence agents. At the time it was common for the Sandinistas themselves to poke fun at the contras—calling attention to their impotence and extremely limited political appeal.

Then in June 1981, the chief of the new Popular Sandinista Army, Comandante Humberto Ortega, made a secret speech to a gathering of military officers avowing that “without sandinismo we cannot be Marxist-Leninist, and sandinismo without Marxism-Leninism cannot be revolutionary,” and admitting that the existing pacts with other, more moderate political forces had been mere expedients to get rid of Somoza, hold off U.S. military intervention, and keep the economy intact. This did not mean, he assured his audience, that the Sandinista Front had any intention of caving into a “bourgeois” political program; indeed, all non-Marxists who had been allies in the struggle against the dictatorship were now declared to be the enemy.

A few weeks later Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders visited Managua to discuss a possible démarche in relations. Enders made four demands of the Sandinistas—that they withdraw from arms trafficking into El Salvador; that they slow or cease their own military build-up, which was upsetting the regional arms balance; that they take steps to fulfill their promises of economic and political pluralism at home; and that they temper their association with Cuba and the Soviet bloc. In exchange, he offered a resumption of U.S. economic aid (which had actually been suspended in the last days of the Carter administration), and stern measures to prevent any exile force from attacking Nicaragua from U.S. territory or with U.S. assistance. His offer was categorically turned aside. Since the Enders mission in August 1981, relations between the Nicaraguan government and the United States have continued to deteriorate.



The real conflict, however, has not been the one between Managua and Washington; it has been the growing antagonism between the Sandinista Front and the people in whose name it presumes to speak. This conflict was, in a sense, inevitable, because a society can be organized effortlessly along Marxist lines only if the vast majority of the population has absolutely nothing to lose. Of course no such society has ever existed, and Nicaragua is no exception. By one authoritative estimate, in 1978 some 180,000 Nicaraguan families possessed property in one form or another,4 which when increased conservatively by a multiplier of five amounts to 900,000 people, or just short of one-third of the population. Whether such people qualify for the term “middle class” (or even “bourgeoisie”) is a matter of sociological judgment or of one’s political vocabulary. But so numerous a stratum would normally give pause to any government intent upon restructuring society—unless, of course, the government in question believed that even an extremely modest stake in the existing system of private property automatically rendered one morally deficient.

In the United States and elsewhere there is considerable confusion about the private sector in Nicaragua because the regime continues to insist that it favors a mixed economy, and because it can point to the fact that slightly more than half of the means of production formally remains in private hands. However, shortly after the fall of Somoza, all banks, shipping, and export-marketing firms were taken over by the state, so that from the beginning the government was in a position to control the disbursement of credit and foreign exchange. By 1983, the public sector was receiving-more than six times as much credit as the private, at far more favorable rates of interest. This, in conjunction with high taxes and price controls, has allowed the Sandinistas quietly to absorb private business through what appear to be perfectly legal procedures—first bankruptcy, then the takeover of defunct enterprises by their creditors (that is, the state).

This process has been slower than the Sandinistas’ ideological predilections would normally dictate, because they understand that the apparent survival of a private sector in Nicaragua is a political fact which strongly influences their credibility in Western Europe and the United States. Then, too, some industries like cotton are highly centralized and capital-intensive, and require annual reinfusions of capital. This explains why cotton planters have been favored with relatively higher prices for their crop than producers of coffee, who tend to be small farmers without the kinds of skills, education, and capital which would allow them to emigrate, and whose fixed investment—in this case, the plants—is not readily transferable.5

But the most important indicator of the Sandinistas’ ultimate intentions toward the private sector is the fact that they have deprived its umbrella organization, COSEP, of the political representation it originally received in the Council of State. As serious Marxists, they understand that economic power cannot be artificially separated from political participation: if the one is to be abolished, the other must eventually also be liquidated. In this instance, they are working both ends against the middle. Properly interpreting the signs of the times, leaders of the private sector have declined to accept periodic assurances of good will in place of concrete acts. Instead, over the past six years there has been a catastrophic flight of capital and managerial skills.

Because they are privileged beings in a society where most people are poor, businessmen in Nicaragua cannot expect to command much sympathy abroad. But for a variety of reasons the Sandinistas’ treatment of COSEP has actually been somewhat gentle compared to that doled out to smaller entrepreneurs. One such group which Shirley Christian singles out for special attention is the market vendors. These are penny capitalists, many of them women, who rise at dawn to set up makeshift stalls in open-air markets, where they sell everything from rice and beans to articles of clothing and children’s toys. In the Department of Managua alone, there are some 30,000 such people; she estimates that there may be another 30,000 scattered throughout the provincial market towns.

The problem began in early 1982, when the government suddenly declared that for the foreseeable future sugar would be rationed. Consumers were told that in order to obtain this most basic of items they would have to get a ration card from their local block (surveillance) committee; they were assigned stores according to the neighborhood in which they lived, and specific days on which they could buy their allotment. The stores were either “popular” groceries established by the government or supermarkets expropriated from Somoza or his cronies. The market vendors were not supplied. During the next three years similar measures were enacted for many other basic consumer items, all of which were removed from the normal channels of supply and demand.

To ask why sugar (and later rice, beans, corn, milk, bananas, cooking oil, and a dozen other articles) came to be rationed in Nicaragua when the country had never before suffered a shortage of foodstuffs is to ask the wrong question. It presupposes that the purpose of the Sandinista government is to encourage agricultural production and widespread consumption, whereas in fact its intention is to utilize food as a means of political control. It is in line with this intention that priorities are organized. Immediately after the revolution, the FSLN created a new agricultural marketing agency, ENABAS, to purchase the harvest from farmers and to provision the urban consumer. This effectively disenfranchised two groups which the government could not control: the vendors themselves and private middlemen, some of whom were simply independent cooperatives. The market vendors have fought back—with demonstrations, passive resistance, participation in the nation’s growing underground economy, even at times with rough justice before sunrise when local Sandinista officials display an excess of zeal. But precisely because the government is willing to subordinate the normal imperatives of the market economy to its political agendas, in the end, other things being equal, it will win.



The creation of ENABAS also put the regime in a position to discipline the farmers, since it was now the only customer for their produce. At first there was no problem because ENABAS paid the farmers more than they would otherwise have received and sold their output at artificially low prices. As time went on, the ordinary rules of economics reasserted themselves, and the agency began to quarrel with producers over prices and also over access to certain essential inputs such as fertilizer and chemicals. Eventually, farmers saw no reason to produce beyond their immediate needs, and there was a dramatic drop in several basic foodstuffs, notably corn and beans. One cannot assume, however, that the Sandinistas found the shortages wholly disconcerting. Shortages, after all, justify the introduction of ration cards, which in turn enhance the importance and power of the block committees and also apparently underscore the need for agencies like ENABAS, which ostensibly address what is, in fact, a very serious national crisis.

The Sandinistas have also had their problems with the peasantry. Though historically much of the productive agricultural land in Nicaragua has been concentrated in large agribusiness combines, the country has always had a fairly numerous smallholder class and an even larger group of tenant farmers who worked subsistence plots. Unlike El Salvador, moreover, Nicaragua also has plenty of vacant land, and in fact in the days of Somoza there was even a small and poorly funded program to encourage homesteading in virgin territories. There was, then, a “land question” in Nicaragua, but it was far less pressing than in many Central American countries. Further, the immediate expropriation in 1979 of 2.75 million acres formerly belonging to Somoza, his associates, or simply people whom the FSLN decided to call somocistas in order to take their land, presumably equipped the government with a large store of rural properties with which it could abundantly satisfy peasant aspirations to ownership.

The difficulty has been, of course, that like Marxist revolutionaries everywhere, the Sandinistas do not look with favor upon private property in land, even on a very modest scale. Consequently, all the larger properties were converted into “state farms” or government-run cooperatives, and in many respects—though not all—the condition of peasants on these lands is not very different from what it was under Somoza. Peasants now receive training in literacy, to which, however, are attached ceaseless political indoctrination and what must be enormously boring classes in “anti-imperialism.” Peasants are also encouraged to offer their sons for service in the new Popular Sandinista Army (ESP).

All this, but especially the failure of the Sandinistas to award individual titles of ownership (as they often quite uninhibitedly promised to do before 1979), has provided the contras with a ready source of food, recruits, and intelligence, particularly in the northern provinces bordering on Honduras. But the contras draw as well from smallholders who fear that they will be next in the sequence of expropriations, or at any rate forced to sell their produce at whatever prices ENABAS deems politically expedient. In some areas, matters have become so serious that the Sandinistas have had to evacuate these communities forcibly to areas far from military operations, or even to grant a limited number of deeds.



Before the revolution, Nicaragua possessed a small labor movement not notable for its political militance. This is not surprising: industrial workers received wages which put them considerably above other manual workers, and, as Shirley Christian acutely observes, “people who would be working in factories in more developed countries were, in Nicaragua, making their livings as small entrepreneurs”—market vendors, taxi drivers, and so forth. Again, not surprisingly, the labor federation which represented most industrial workers was closely tied in with the Somoza regime. Almost immediately after their victory, the Sandinistas essentially took over this trade-union movement and renamed it the Central Sandinistas de Trabajadores (CST), placing at its head a small group of activists from the underground days. By mid-1981, the CST accounted for roughly half the union membership; the other half was divided between the FTN, affiliated with the Christian Democratic International, and the FTU, with links to the AFL-CIO.

As with the peasantry, political indoctrination rather than the advancement of group interests has become the most important object of the CST. Wage increases and strikes have been prohibited, and when some workers have dared to contravene the orders of their putative leaders, they have been threatened with conscription into the army. Independent labor federations have found it increasingly difficult to operate, and as they face a state which will, in time, be the employer of sole resort, their future existence is in serious doubt.



The Nicaraguans who have suffered most from Sandinista rule are the Indians of the Atlantic coast—the Miskito, Rama, and Sumo peoples. Separated from “Spanish” Nicaragua by geography, language, culture, and religion, they were neglected by all governments prior to 1979. For many years the only outsiders interested in their welfare were Moravian missionaries (which perhaps explains why so many of their leaders are ordained pastors of that denomination). While the Miskitos did not participate in the uprising against Somoza, several of their younger leaders studying at the time at the National University in Managua were persuaded to offer public support to the new regime in exchange for promises of autonomy and communal control of forest lands.

Almost immediately difficulties ensued. The Atlantic coast is the region of Nicaragua closest to Cuba and also the historic route of U.S. Marine landings in the 1920’s. The Sandinistas’ principal interest in the region was military, and by 1981 some 7,000 troops were stationed there, disrupting the peace of the inhabitants by constant maneuvers, target practice, and the careless use of tracked vehicles. Nor did the Miskitos take kindly to the Cuban doctors and teachers who poured into the area, and who seemed more interested in raising the Indians’ “political consciousness” than in teaching or healing. It was difficult, too, for people in the care of two or three generations of Moravian pastors to repose much confidence in leaders who boasted of being “scientific atheists.”

The real difficulty, however, was the condescending attitude of the Sandinista leadership toward indigenous peoples. Luis Carrión Cruz, the member of the National Directorate delegated to handle Indian affairs, spoke openly of the Miskitos’ “very large ideological backwardness,” and refused any serious discussion of communal control of forest lands. The problem was not, of course, collective ownership as such, but the desire of the Sandinistas not to allow the emergence of new forms of property which did not in some way depend upon the state.

These developments led to violent incidents, the jailing of Miskito leaders, and a massive flight of younger Miskitos to Honduras, where they provided fresh troops for the tiny insurgency launched by former National Guardsmen. The Sandinistas responded by forcibly relocating some 15,000 Miskitos and Sumos from their ancestral villages; soldiers burned their homes, churches, and crops as they left. By 1984 it was estimated that at least 25,000 Miskitos, Ramas, and Sumos were in exile in Honduras; another 20,000 had been involuntarily resettled in other parts of the country. The Sandinistas often charm foreign innocents with the frank admission that they have committed “errors” with respect to the Indian communities. But as Shirley Christian notes, they did so with their eyes open: “the priorities were military security and political control. Past promises aside, these things were not negotiable.”



The rapid decline of open political institutions in Sandinista Nicaragua has led to a transformation in the role of the Roman Catholic Church. As in Poland, the Church has become an opposition party manqué; though unable to overthrow the regime, it is the most important instrument of serious resistance within the country. A generation or two ago it would have been possible to dismiss this phenomenon as a reactionary hold-over from the old regime; such efforts have, indeed, been made, but they do not stand up very well in the light of recent history. The spiritual leader of Nicaragua, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, has long been noted for his liberal views on social and economic issues, and was always one of the most courageous and outspoken opponents of the Somoza dictatorship.

The spectacle of a liberal cleric opposing the Sandinistas is especially discomfiting to well-wishers of the regime in Catholic circles abroad, for the Nicaraguan revolution has become one of the two or three most important repositories of hope for those clergy and laity broadly identified with the movement known as “liberation theology.” For these people, ideologically speaking, there can be no disjunction between a Church committed to the interests of the poor and a government which formally embraces and practices Marxism. This notion dovetails with another held by the government—namely, that since (according to a 1981 poll) 80 percent of the Nicaraguans identify “religion” as the most important value in their lives, the regime cannot afford a direct confrontation with the Church. Rather, the Church must be absorbed and controlled. Hence the creation of a “People’s Church”—a caucus (to use conventional political terminology) within the Body of Christ that either is declared to be, or at any rate soon will become, coterminous with it.

Nicaragua’s revolutionary Christians have set about this application of Leninist principles to religious organization with some very distinct advantages. They have received generous donations from overseas, particularly from the World Council of Churches ($176,000), the National Council of Churches ($365,329), the Methodists ($100,000), the Presbyterian Program to Fight World Hunger ($10,000), and the United Methodists ($25,000). All this money has allowed them to maintain a full-time staff, mostly foreigners, who operate out of the Valdivieso Center in Managua. They are viewed with distinct benevolence by the regime, which periodically supplies them with access to controlled media, transportation, and other facilities (in exchange for which they periodically appear to give witness to visiting co-religionists).

More important still has been the way that the Sandinista turbas, or mobs, have attacked bishops and priests loyal to Cardinal Obando, including, most spectacularly, the Pope himself on the occasion of his visit to Managua in March 1983. The government or its dependencies have also harassed or expelled leaders of Protestant denominations insufficiently aggiornado, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Moravians, Seventh Day Adventists, and some evangelicals. And it has shut down Radio Católica, the property of the Roman Catholic archdiocese, the country’s sole remaining independent station. Moreover, a person’s religious views have become a crucial factor of survival in an increasingly difficult (and government-controlled) job market.

Under these circumstances, one would have the right to expect the Church in Nicaragua to be, at the very least, deeply divided, and this is the way many left-wing Christians in the United States and elsewhere have described it. Yet after a conscientious effort to determine the relative strength of the traditional and “people’s” Churches, Shirley Christian found that most parish priests, including a majority of the foreign-born, usually support their bishops. Further, she discovered that “generally . . . the liberation priests did not attract big crowds to their masses.” Cardinal Obando’s dispute with the Sandinistas has made him the most popular man in the country, and the only reason the regime has not attacked him more strongly is out of fear of increasing his stature even further. She closes her survey with an interesting question—if the Sandinistas ever do succeed in subverting the Church hierarchy, will they continue to feel the need for their revolutionary Christian friends?



A regime which seeks to impose Marxist patterns of social control upon an unwilling population, and is willing to sacrifice its economy in the process, is bound to find an uncommon need for instruments of force and violence. This explains why, among other things, the Sandinistas have raised an army larger than that of all other Central American nations combined. It accounts for the need for massive foreign assistance from countries like Cuba, the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Bulgaria, whose major, perhaps only, real contribution to the armature of modern life is the art of domestic surveillance. It also explains the steady pattern of Soviet deliveries of military materiel to Nicaragua, including (up until 1983) smaller transport planes, helicopters, and tankers, as well as heavy weapons like tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and aircraft. Thus, what at first glance appears to be an exclusively internal affair of the Nicaraguans—how to organize their own society—becomes a matter of legitimate security concern to their neighbors, and to the United States.

Such efforts at the Marxist reorganization of society will also lead opponents—when their patience and good will are finally exhausted—to grasp at whatever violent alternatives are available. In the Nicaraguan case, this has meant a veritable flowering and transformation of the contras. In a mere five years the contras have grown from perhaps 300 to 15,000 men, which is precisely three times the number of men who fought Somoza at the height of the civil war in 1979. There have been some qualitative changes as well: the preponderance of former National Guardsmen has dwindled, so that today only nine of the fifty-four commanders can be so described; as for the soldiers themselves, they now consist largely of peasants, shopkeepers, Miskito Indians, and, on the southern front, even former Sandinistas.

At the same time, there has been a drastic change in the political leadership of the resistance. It now includes not merely conservatives with good anti-Somoza credentials like Adolfo Calero and Fernando Chamorro, but social democrats and liberals who collaborated with the Sandinistas during their initial period of power—Arturo Cruz, former president of the Central Bank and ambassador to the United States; Alfonso Robelo, former member of the Council of State; and Edén Pastora Gómez, who as “Comandante Zero” was the most important combat hero of the revolution and later served it as Deputy Minister of Defense. The fact that so many commentators in the United States continue to talk about the contras in terms appropriate to five years ago says far more about the state of affairs in this country than the situation in Nicaragua or its immediate environs.

Partly as a result of such talk, Congress voted in May 1985 to cut off all aid to the contras. The day after the vote, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega went off to Moscow to confer with his allies—much to the horror and consternation of Congress. Precisely why so many Congressmen were in such an uproar over Ortega’s trip—which was far from his first—is something of a mystery. Perhaps it was because in one single act Ortega had eloquently demonstrated something many Nicaraguans have known for six years: that the course of events in their country is following a logic of its own, not reacting to provocations from the United States. Members of Congress could have known this long ago had they simply focused upon the way the Sandinistas have treated their own people, instead of trying to squeeze the entire contents of Nicaraguan reality into the narrow tube of bilateral relations or, worse still, into the tiny prism of partisan politics. There is still time for them to reverse course, but they must act quickly, or all of us—Nicaraguans, Hondurans, Costa Ricans, and ultimately Americans—will reap a very bitter harvest indeed.




1 FSLN: The Ideology of the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan Revolution, Graduate School of International Studies, University of Miami, 203 pp., $14.95.

2Nicaragua: A Revolution in the Family”, Random House, 380 pp., $19.95.

3The Masaryk Case” (new edition), David R. Godine, 398 pp., $9.95.

4 Arturo Cruz Sequeira, “Introducción,” in José Luis Velásquez and Arturo Cruz Sequeira, eds., Nicaragua: re-gresión en la revolutión (San José, Costa Rica, Editorial Cosmos, forthcoming).

5 Forest Colburn and Silvio de Franco, “Elite agraria en la revolutión nicaragüense,” in Velásquez and Sequeira, Nicaragua.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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