This post is a part of our “Latin America’s Ongoing Revolutions” series, which explores the colonial and post-colonial angles of Latin America’s revolutionary history. Check out the entire series.
“It was a beautiful revolution, but what happened is that it was betrayed.”
In 2015, Ernesto Cardenal – the beret-wearing Catholic priest, acclaimed poet, and key personality of the Sandinista Revolution (1979-1990) – delivered this appraisal of Nicaragua’s postrevolutionary legacy. At the time, Latin America watched with concern as Nicaraguan democracy imploded. Daniel Ortega, president during the revolutionary 1980s and re-elected in 2006, used his office and grip over the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to muzzle dissent and consolidate control over all branches of government. In doing so, the former Marxist rebel eschewed the Revolution’s redistributive economics and progressive social policies. He instead presided over a stunning ideological metamorphosis whereby the Sandinista Front became a socially-conservative, pro-business party in tacit alliance with “the most conservative sectors of society.” The regime’s corporatist pacts with the capitalist class and the Catholic Church hierarchies, in conjunction with Ortega’s blatantly dynastic ambitions (he shared power with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, and groomed his children for future leadership), suggested a bizarre reprise of the Somoza dictatorship the FSLN overthrew in 1979. “That’s not what we supported,” the elderly Cardenal lamented. Gioconda Belli, another influential literary figure, recently reflected that “what never should have happened is happening again in Nicaragua.” Like Cardenal and countless other high-profile Sandinistas, Belli abandoned the FSLN many years ago.
April 2018 was a watershed in the long history of the Sandinista Revolution. After a decade of quietly acquiescing to authoritarianism in exchange for economic growth and stability, much of the population erupted in rebellion. A panideological, multisectorial, and multiclass protest movement rocked the regime and demanded a democratic transition. The erection of barricades across the country, along with the defection of crucial elite allies, marked the end of the Ortega regime’s first phase. Unable to restore the status quo, the FSLN government unleashed a wave of police and paramilitary violence which killed hundreds and sparked accusations of “crimes against humanity” by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR). Since then, the regime has muddled through a protracted political and economic crisis by leveraging the loyalty of security forces and exploiting divisions within the fragmented opposition. The 2018 crackdown left behind a persisting “climate of widespread terror,” as the UN human rights office put it. It also left Nicaraguans looking to the past to help make sense of their present. Inevitably, the historical memory of the Sandinista Revolution takes on a different shape in this new light.
Cardenal passed away in March of this year at the age of 95. Dozens of government sympathizers, clad in the red-and-black colors of the Sandinista Front, crashed his funeral mass in Managua’s Metropolitan Cathedral. In between bitter chants – ¡traidor! – they roughed up grieving relatives and threatened to profane his coffin. He was eventually buried in secret. Evidently, the question of the Revolution’s legacy is very much alive. Some Nicaraguans, like Cardenal, decry a revolution betrayed. Orteguistas claim a revolution fulfilled. Still others, from hardline anti-Sandinista backgrounds, consider the original 1979 revolution a national betrayal in and of itself.How can historians connect the history of the Sandinista Revolution, long understood in the West as a Cold War “hotspot”, with contemporary crossroads in Nicaraguan and Latin American politics?
A (very) brief history of the Nicaraguan Revolution
The Sandinista Front was the first and only armed leftist organization to take power in Latin America after the Cuban Revolution. Their success in 1979 was made possible by an ideologically diverse, “multiclass coalition” which differentiated the Nicaraguan case from failed uprisings elsewhere in the so-called Third World. The anti-Somoza alliances collapsed, however, soon after the ancien régime was defeated. U.S. intervention later militarized grievances with Sandinista rule that, absent Washington bullets or dollars, would likely have remained in the political sphere. The ensuing Contra insurgency led to a devastating civil war, itself part of a web of interlocking conflicts in Central America which pitted Cuban-aligned Marxist rebels in Guatemala and El Salvador against U.S.-backed anti-communist regimes in those countries. The war effort consumed the FSLN government and derailed its social transformation agenda.
Their revolution ended in unexpected fashion. As a result of the 1987 Central American Peace Accords, Nicaragua held democratic elections which the ruling Sandinistas surprisingly lost. Thus, in 1990 the FSLN became the first socialist movement which, having come to power by the barrel of gun, turned it over after losing at the ballot box. The Revolution therefore left a peculiar balance sheet. As Sergio Ramírez (Vice President, 1985-1990) wrote in his memoir,
The revolution did not bring justice for the oppressed as had been hoped; nor did it manage to create wealth and development. Instead, its greatest benefit was democracy, sealed in 1990 with the acknowledgement of electoral defeat. As a paradox of history, this is its most obvious legacy, although it was not its most passionate objective.
Reckoning with the Revolution
But as former FSLN Comandante Jaime Wheelock recently commented, “if the Sandinista Revolution can still be recognized as having contributed to a durable democratic transition, that’s now in doubt.” Indeed, the violent consolidation of the Ortegas as a new family dictatorship forces us to ask more generally what the Sandinista Revolution changed, and did not change, in terms of the country’s long-standing social inequalities, cultural cleavages, and political arrangements. The trauma of repression makes this reckoning difficult. But generational change makes it both possible and necessary.
In revisiting the Nicaraguan Revolution, scholars should resist two impulses. The first is the tendency to treat the Sandinista period primarily as a flashpoint in the history of U.S. foreign relations. The Reagan administration’s belligerence in Central America inspired passionate and important debates among U.S. citizens about their country’s interventions abroad. However, viewing Nicaraguan politics exclusively through that prism can create unhelpful terms of reference. It can also obscure local complexities; while U.S. actors were extraordinarily influential in shaping and constraining the Nicaraguan revolutionary process, decisions made in Washington overlapped with a panoply of national and regional dynamics.
Second, new histories of the Revolution must refuse the temptation to either romanticize or demonize Sandinista leaders. The same goes for their opponents. All revolutions have a Manichaean quality, and contemporary polarization in Nicaragua has accentuated this facet in the Sandinista Revolution’s historical memory. But recent works by a younger set of scholars, such as Irene Agudelo’s discursive analysis of the Contra’s complicated origins and legacies, demonstrate the value of moving beyond black-and-white visions of our contemporary history.
After all, the university students who ignited the 2018 street protests came from Sandinista and anti-Sandinista backgrounds alike. Two years on, some of their movements have already slid back into the partisan, ideological rancor of yesteryear. But the most powerful voices among them have raised a more holistic critique of Nicaraguan political culture. Why did our parents’ generation, despite the promise of renewal in 1979, ultimately fail to transcend the country’s addiction to authoritarian caudillo politics? The new crop is especially critical of our historical tendency to resolve conflicts through armed violence, and they resent our repeated failure to create justice and accountability for its victims. As one young progressive put it, “we’re not the children of the revolution, we’re the children of unhealed traumas.”
The focus should be on the Sandinista Revolution’s enmeshment with broader narratives in Nicaraguan history. The implosion of the liberal democratic experiment of the 1990s, for instance, puts the collapse of the Somocista and revolutionary regimes in a different context: a much longer history, dating back to independence in the early 1800s, of frequently aborted processes of state formation. Similarly, the special forms of violence inflicted on afro-descendant and indigenous communities under both the democratic transition and Ortega dictatorship suggests we should take another look at how the Sandinista Revolution’s promise of inclusion intersected with the older, exclusionary myth of Nicaragua’s mestizo identity. In terms of political culture, the FSLN’s remarkable rightward swing in the 21st century makes one wonder about deeply rooted, ultraconservative strains in elite Nicaraguan thought which cut across traditional ideological divides. Analysts are also beginning to connect the insurgent and counterinsurgent violence of the 1970s and 1980s with the various factors that gave rise to both the Ortega dictatorship as well as the surprising protest movement of 2018. These are but a few examples that come to mind.
Finally, the Nicaraguan Revolution should be put in regional context. In my research, I link the Sandinista Revolution to broader late-Cold War changes in Latin America; one of them was the nearly simultaneous collapse of anti-communist military dictatorships and rise of liberal democratic transitions across the continent. Similarly, authoritarian regression in Nicaragua was clearly symptomatic of wider democratic backsliding seen across the hemisphere over the past two decades. And while the particulars vary by country, the 2018 anti-Ortega uprising – motivated not only by demands for individual liberties but also by calls for equality, inclusion, and transparency – is likewise tied to the wave of protests that electrified every corner of the region in 2019. Reckoning with the Sandinista Revolution’s legacy also means recognizing that the ongoing crisis in Nicaragua is more relevant to wider Latin American politics than most scholars have considered.
Mateo Jarquín is Assistant Professor of History at Chapman University. Originally from Nicaragua, he earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2019. His scholarship asks how 20th-century revolutions in the so-called Third World have framed global debates about development, democratization, and international relations. Based on archival and oral history research in several Latin American countries, his current project examines Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution (1979-1990) through a transnational lens. Additionally, he has written about contemporary Nicaraguan politics in publications such as The New York Times, Axios, Política Exterior, and The Washington Post.
Title image: “U.S. documentary photographer Susan Meiselas captured the most famous images of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution. For her 2004 project “Reframing History,” she installed murals of the photographs at the exact locations they were originally taken: http://www.susanmeiselas.com/latin-america/2006-present/#id=intro.”
Further Readings (and one film):
Belli, Gioconda. “How Daniel Ortega Became a Tyrant.” Foreign Affairs, August 24, 2018.
Carrión, Gloria, director. Heiress of the Wind. Journeyman Pictures, 2018.
Close, Martí I Puig, and McConnell, eds. The Sandinistas and Nicaragua since 1979. Lynne Rienner, 2011.
Francis, Hilary, ed. A Nicaraguan Exceptionalism? Debating the Legacy of the Sandinista Revolution. University of London Press, 2020.
Ramírez, Sergio. “Algo nuevo va a nacer.” Revista ágrafos, no.9, August 2020.
Proceedings from Nicaragua 1979-2019: The Sandinista Revolution After Forty Years, Brown University, May 2-4, 2019. https://watson.brown.edu/events/2019/conference- nicaragua-1979-2019-sandinista-revolution-after-40-years
Selser, Gabriela. Banderas y harapos: Relatos de la revolución en Nicaragua. Editorial Anama, 2016.
 “Lamenta Cardenal traición a la Revolución de Nicaragua en sus 90 años,” Jornada, January 19, 2015.
 Salvador Martí I Puig, “Nicaragua: Desdemocratización y caudillismo,” Revista de Ciencia Política, 36(1), 2016: 243.
 Belli, 2018. See suggested readings.
 “Report by independent experts affirms that government of President Ortega has committed crimes against humanity,” Amnesty International, December 21, 2018.
 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Human Rights Violations and Abuses in the Context of Protests in Nicaragua,” July 5, 2018.
 “Simpatizantes de Ortega invaden el funeral del poeta Ernesto Cardenal para gritarle ‘traidor’,” El País, March 4, 2020.
 Mark Everingham, Revolution and the Multiclass Coalition in Nicaragua, (Pittsburgh: University of
Pittsburgh Press, 1996).
 For a longer survey, see my essay “A la sombra de la Revolución Sandinista: Nicaragua, 1979-2019” in Anhelos de un nuevo horizonte: Aportes hacia la construcción de una Nicaragua democrática, (San José, Costa Rica: FLACSO, 2020).
 Sergio Ramírez, Adiós Muchachos: A Memoir of the Sandinista Revolution, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 4.
 See proceedings from Nicaragua 1979-2019: The Sandinista Revolution After Forty Years, Brown University, May 2-4, 2019.
 For the most comprehensive analysis of U.S. policy and the debates it engendered, see William LeoGrande, Our Own Backyard: U.S. Policy in Central America, 1977-1922, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988).
 Irene Agudelo, Contramemorias: Discursos e imágenes sobre/desde la Contra, (Managua: IHNCA, 2017).
 Madeleine Caracas, “No somos los hijos de la revolución,” Confidencial, April 22, 2019.
 Victor Hugo Acuña, “La formación del Estado en Nicaragua y Costa Rica en perspectiva comparada: siglos XIX-XX,” Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos, no. 44, 2018: 1-42.
 Jeffrey Gould, To Die in this Way: Nicaraguan Indians and the Myth of Mestizaje, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).
 Juan Pablo Gómez, Autoridad/Cuerpo/Nación: Batallas culturales en Nicaragua, 1930-43, (Managua: IHNCA-UCA, 2015).
 José Luís Rocha, Autoconvocados y conectados: Los universitarios en la revuelta de abril en Nicaragua, (Managua: UCA, 2019).