History, The Sandinista Revolution, 1978-1990
The conflict between the Somoza regime and the Nicaraguan people reached a crisis point in January 1978. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, a prominent newspaper editor and leader of the political opposition to Somoza, was murdered, probably by business associates of the president. This set off rioting and a nationwide general strike to demand that Somoza resign. In August 1978 a Sandinista commando force, headed by Eden Pastora (known as Comandante Zero), seized the National Palace and took the Nicaraguan congress hostage. A negotiated solution was reached, but the incident shattered the image of the Guard as invincible and gave the Sandinistas worldwide prestige.
Within Nicaragua the Sandinista victory sparked a series of uprisings. The Guard responded with great brutality, killing many civilians. As a result, recruits flocked to the Sandinistas, and the business class supported another nationwide strike. The United States and other nations began seeking ways to force Somoza out of office, but an international mediation effort collapsed at the end of 1978. Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Panama now joined Cuba in supporting the Sandinistas, and many Nicaraguan business leaders and politicians decided that, despite the Marxist orientation of the Sandinistas, they were preferable to Somoza and the only alternative.
In May 1979 the Sandinistas launched an all-out offensive to overthrow Somoza, calling for a popular uprising. The Organization of American States (OAS) rejected a U.S. proposal to send an international armed force to Nicaragua to restore peace. Instead, the OAS called on Somoza to resign and turn over power to a Junta (Council) of National Reconstruction, selected by the Sandinistas. Somoza fled into exile, the National Guard dissolved, and on July 19, 1979, the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua. It is estimated that up to 50,000 Nicaraguans died in the war to defeat Somoza.
The Sandinistas set up the junta and a broad-based cabinet, including non-Sandinistas, to govern and rebuild the war-damaged nation. Their goals included ambitious health-care, literacy, and land-reform programs to help the poor. A council of representatives from business, labor, and other segments of society was established to act as a legislature until elections could be held. But it soon became apparent that real power rested with the Sandinistas' nine-member National Directorate. By 1980 moderate leaders were leaving the government, and tensions between the government and Catholic Church officials were growing.
Relations with the United States deteriorated steadily, especially after Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. His administration was strongly anti-Communist and was convinced that the Sandinistas were supporting guerrilla forces in other Central American countries and were closely allied with Cuba and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Reagan suspended aid to Nicaragua, imposed an economic boycott, and began supplying money, arms, and training for an armed opposition guerrilla force known as the contras (short for “counterrevolutionaries” in Spanish). These contra forces, based in neighboring countries, included former members of Somoza's National Guard and other Nicaraguans dissatisfied with the new government. Nicaragua, facing contra attacks, began receiving military aid from Cuba and the Soviet Union. The government censored the media, frequently jailed opposition politicians, and increased efforts to impose a socialist model on the economy. Large elements of a private business sector continued, however, and opposition politics were never banned.
Elections were held in 1984, but most opposition parties refused to participate. The Sandinista candidate, Daniel Ortega Saavedra, won an easy victory, and the Sandinistas gained a huge majority in the new National Assembly. The United States and much of the opposition resorted to armed force to try to dislodge the Sandinistas. Casualties from the contra war mounted, and the threat of war between Nicaragua and Honduras increased. Honduran officials allowed the contras to attack Nicaragua from bases in their country, built up their own military forces, and permitted the United States to conduct military exercises and build airstrips from which to help the contras. Members of the U.S. Congress who opposed the contra policy tried to restrict funding but had only limited success until 1986, when the scandal known as the Iran-Contra Affair revealed that Reagan administration officials had violated U.S. law to get support to the contras.
Other nations in the hemisphere tried to mediate the Central American crisis. The Contadora group of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama began its efforts in 1983 but had little success. In 1987 Costa Rica's president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, began an effort to have Central America's leaders resolve their own problems. In 1988 the Sandinistas agreed to begin talks with the contras, but fighting continued for several months. Pressures for a negotiated settlement, however, were building. Nicaragua's economy was devastated by the effects of the war and the U.S. embargo, low prices for exports, and a series of natural disasters. Many of the Sandinista government's economic policies, which involved state control of imports and exports, emphasis on agricultural cooperatives, and restrictions on private business, proved unsuccessful. At its worst point, in 1988, Nicaragua had the world's highest annual inflation rate, with estimates ranging from 2,000 percent to 36,000 percent. Soviet bloc aid also declined in the late 1980s, as the Soviet economy deteriorated and Communist governments were overthrown in Eastern Europe. At the same time, U.S. efforts to find a negotiated solution in Central America increased with the 1989 inauguration of President George Bush to succeed Reagan.
In early 1989 Central America's presidents agreed on a plan for disarming the contras, dispatching a United Nations peacekeeping mission, and holding internationally monitored elections in Nicaragua in early 1990. Confident of victory, the Sandinistas relaxed restrictions on political opponents and allowed a relatively free campaign. Fourteen opposition parties formed the National Opposition Union (UNO) with Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, widow of assassinated editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, as their presidential candidate. Campaigning on a promise to end military conscription and promote national reconciliation, Chamorro won a stunning victory with 55 percent of the vote, defeating incumbent president Ortega, the Sandinista candidate, who received only 41 percent.