Sandinista! The US Left and Nicaragua
18 July 2021, Nicaragua, Managua: A man waves a Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) flag during a march to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution. Stringer/ DPA

Sandinista! The US Left and Nicaragua

Ronald Radosh
Ronald Radosh
17 min read

When the Sandinista insurgency overthrew the barbaric dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979, many on the international Left believed that Nicaragua had become a nation alive with political possibility. American radicals, in particular, understood the revolutionary new government led by Daniel Ortega to be a noble rebuke to the hegemony imposed by American imperialism, and regarded it with the same romantic infatuation previously reserved for Fidel Castro's Cuba. Young idealists, including New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, hurried to Central America to assist Ortega in his declared mission to build a thriving, independent socialist state. Their devotion to and justification of every measure the new revolutionary regime introduced was so pronounced, and the pilgrimages to the country so numerous, that these Americans came to be known as the “Sandalistas.”

Some returned disenchanted. But for the most part, the consensus among US leftists has been that, whatever its various imperfections and shortcomings, the Sandinista revolution remained a project deserving of sympathy and support—an attempt to build a fairer society in the teeth of a vindictive campaign of Western intimidation led by the US which could not bear to see any socialist experiment succeed. Amazingly, a not insignificant number of US leftists remain committed to the revolutionary socialist cause in Castroite Cuba and in Maduro's Venezuela in spite of the repression and hardship the citizens of those countries experience at the hands of their rulers.

However, recent events in Nicaragua have caused stirrings of unease among many of Ortega's previously loyal US supporters, and in some cases, strident criticism. Tough new measures were introduced in April 2018, when thousands of Nicaraguans took to the streets to protest a sudden rollback of social security benefits. Manuel Orozco, a Senior Fellow at the DC think tank, The Inter-American Dialogue, described the protests as a “consequence of years of unsatisfied demands and growing repression and censorship [of] dissident groups.” Three hundred and thirty-two Nicaraguans died in the fighting, and 565 were arrested. By December 2018, the opposition had been defeated and its leaders were fugitives.

The assault on human rights accelerated, the New York Times reports, when “a wave of arrests of politicians and civil society leaders on unsubstantiated charges of subversion ... left the long-ruling president, Daniel Ortega, running practically unopposed in November’s general elections.” Ortega’s blacklist included many former Sandinista supporters, including one of his Ambassadors to the United States, Arturo Cruz Jr., and Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of former president Violeta Chamorro.

When demonstrations erupted in the revolutionary town of Masaya (the center of the Sandinistas’ war against the Somoza regime in the 1970s), it looked for a moment as if Ortega would be forced from power, and that a new democratic government might be allowed, finally, to emerge. Ortega responded by shuttering a major independent TV station and arresting its news director, closing down the independent Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) and confiscating its computers, and expelling foreign NGOs from the country.

Vilma Núñez, the CENIDH president and a former Sandinista, told a reporter from the Times that Nicaragua is even more repressive today than it was under the Somozas. Protests became so large that when rubber bullets proved to be ineffective, Ortega ordered his troops and police to respond with grenade launchers and assault rifles. In the past few weeks, with national elections scheduled for November 7th, Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, have taken unprecedented steps to ensure that they result in a comfortable win for the regime.

Ortega and many of his Latin American counterparts continue to blame Nicaragua’s troubles on “American imperialism,” but the non-sectarian American Left has demurred. Earlier this year, American writer and activist Margaret Randall joined 500 other former pro-Sandinista activists who signed a letter accusing the Ortega-Murillo regime of betraying “the memory of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans who died for a democratic Nicaragua.” They continued: “We are well aware of—and detest—the long, shameful history of US government intervention in Nicaragua and many other countries in Latin America. However, the crimes of the US government—past and present—are not the cause of, nor do they justify or excuse, the crimes against humanity committed by the current regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.”

In an article for the Havana Times on July 1st, Randall explained her decision to sign the open letter like this:

The Ortega-Murillo duo is so power-crazy and cruel that we—as part of a US community who once actively supported the Sandinista government—felt we had to challenge them in our open letter. There is ample documentation about the many ways in which they have usurped power, kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured anyone opposing them, and repressed protestors in general.
Claiming to speak for the poor and disenfranchised, they have siphoned off millions from foreign aid, principally from Venezuela, for themselves and their children. They have cut deals with ultra-right-wing leaders and businessmen, while imprisoning comrades from the days of the revolution.

“This [anti-Ortega movement] was not a US-inspired plot,” Randall concluded. “Nicaraguans were thinking and continue to think for themselves.” She is particularly unimpressed that Ortega has managed to defang and co-opt his former conservative opponents by making deals with the business community and the country's Catholic Church. The late Cardinal Obando y Bravo was once among the Sandinistas’ fiercest opponents, but before his death, he became their equally vehement supporter after Ortega agreed to the most restrictive abortion laws in the region.

In Nicaragua today, any woman who has an abortion is subject to arrest and imprisonment, even if she became pregnant as the result of rape or incest. (It bears mentioning that in March 1998, Ortega’s own stepdaughter accused him of sexually abusing her since she was 14. Her mother took her husband's side.) A doctor who performs an abortion faces 30 years in prison. The law is so strict that a pregnant 27-year-old woman was refused treatment for metastatic cancer, on the grounds that the chemotherapy might endanger her fetus.

It may be that this measure alone was enough to turn much of the American Left against Ortega. No Marxist or socialist feminist could possibly support a government that enacted such an inhumane law merely to end the Church’s opposition to the regime. After all, the other repressive steps taken by Ortega—breaking up opposition rallies, sending in armed thugs to beat regime opponents, closing opposition newspapers, refusing to allow independent trade unions to function freely—are also characteristics of the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, and have not been enough to dampen radical enthusiasm for those brutal socialist projects.

* * *

So are the Sandinistas’ former supporters in the free West ready to admit, at long last, that they were wrong about Ortega? Not especially. The gathering consensus among former supporters of the Sandinista solidarity movement seems to be that Ortega has lost his way and betrayed the revolution and its ideals. A lengthy essay for the New York Review of Books by veteran former New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer entitled “Ortega in His Labyrinth” is emblematic of this tendency.

Kinzer's aim is to try and understand why Ortega has visited such an unrelenting campaign of violence on his own countrymen, and he is well placed to conduct such an analysis. During the 1980s, Kinzer was the Times’ bureau chief in Managua and filed dispatches chronicling the progress and pitfalls of the new revolutionary regime. As Julia Preston wrote in a 1991 review of Kinzer's book, Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua, “He was not always first, but he was thorough. He had an opportunity to provide more comprehensive coverage than any other single reporter during his five years in Managua, and often he succeeded in doing so.” One might have expected, therefore, that Kinzer’s experience and insight would make his new assessment compelling. Ortega's draconian record has, after all, provided him with a lot of material.

Alas, instead, Kinzer’s essay offers a distortion of the historical record in support of the claim that Ortega’s brutality is uncharacteristic of the Sandinista project. Ortega’s betrayal of Nicaraguans (and, by extension, the revolution’s Western leftist allies), Kinzer argues, is demonstrated by the arrest and detention of important Sandinista comrades from the revolutionary era. Indeed, Kinzer elects to open his essay with the arrest of the 73-year-old revolutionary, Hugo Torres, who was “chief of intelligence for the Sandinista People’s Army as it fought US-backed right-wing contra rebels during the 1980s.”

This was a particularly shocking move, he writes, “because [Torres] is a ‘historical Sandinista,’ one of the revolutionaries who overthrew the oppressive Somoza dictatorship and went on to reshape Nicaragua while fighting the contras. Until now, these figures have been considered national heroes and therefore untouchable.” Dora Maria Téllez—“a heroine of the 1979 revolution who at the age of twenty-two commanded three thousand Sandinista rebels and went on to become minister of the heath”—has received the same treatment, as has Victor Hugo Tinoco, a Sandinista diplomat that Kinzer remembers for “his scathing attacks on the Reagan administration when he was Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United Nations.”

Kinzer is correct that Ortega is recreating a dynastic tyranny like the one he helped to overthrow, and his article unsparingly exposes and condemns the regime’s present repression. He also explains how Ortega worked the system and manipulated elections to ensure his re-election as president. But these methods, and the egregious human rights violations they involve, are no different from those employed by Ortega, Torres, and Tomás Borge, the head of the Interior Ministry (secret police), to quash dissent during the 1980s. And it is here that Kinzer’s blind spot becomes most evident.

Kinzer claims that the Sandinistas who seized power in 1979 were “idealistic young comandantes who immediately launched a literacy campaign and then set out to redistribute land and empower the poor.” All of this, he marvels, “electrified the world.” It would be more accurate to say that it electrified the radical Left, who were equally taken with Fidel Castro’s endlessly hectoring speeches. He seems to think that no reasonable person of goodwill could possibly have foreseen what is now unfolding in Nicaragua. Ortega, he avers, “seemed an unformed but reasonably promising leader. Few could have imagined that he would degenerate into a hermit dictator”:

Ortega’s response has no precedent in Nicaraguan history. He sent out police squads and gangs of masked thugs, with orders to use live ammunition against unarmed protesters. They killed more than three hundred. It was the bloodiest burst of repression in the twenty-first-century history of Latin America.

Eager to prove that he remains a man of the Left, however, Kinzer adds the gratuitous observation that “US agencies have encouraged and funded anti-Ortega groups in Nicaragua,” and points his finger at the CIA, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the bipartisan National Endowment for Democracy (NED). These agencies, he writes, “and other institutions of American power have usually worked so relentlessly to foment these rebellions that their legitimacy is uncertain.”

Kinzer’s denigration of the NED—a regular target of the anti-imperialist Left—is particularly unfortunate. This is an organization that helps independent groups trying to develop democratic institutions in undemocratic states. It supports the struggle for democratic freedoms wherever they are endangered, be it in countries ruled by left-wing regimes or in former Communist countries that have been moving toward what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán likes to call “illiberal democracy.” In a revealing aside, Kinzer complains that some of those opposed to Ortega in the US are tainted because they are “promoters of American empire who have spent generations trying to crush Cuba, and who are now seeking ways to strangle Venezuela.” (Cuba was crushed by incompetent and tyrannical governance, and Venezuela is being strangled by Nicolás Maduro, not the United States, which—correctly—supports his freely elected democratic opponent, Juan Guaidó.)

But worst of all—and fatal to his analysis—is Kinzer’s refusal to acknowledge the copious evidence of Sandinista repression during the ‘80s, some of which he recorded in his own columns at the time. In power, the Sandinistas were just as repressive as Ortega is today, and as Somoza was against those who threatened his right-wing dictatorship. Ortega was certainly not above closing newspapers during the years of the Sandinista revolution, and he did so repeatedly. In 1988, Kinzer interviewed a democratic critic of the regime, who asked him a rhetorical question: “How long has [Ortega] been saying that there is freedom of expression in Nicaragua, while newspapers were censored and radio shows shut down?”

Kinzer is certainly knowledgeable enough to recall that many other reporters who covered Nicaragua in the revolution’s heyday found themselves unable to share his enthusiasm, myself included. In 1986, I wrote an op-ed for the paper at which he worked entitled “No Illusions About Nicaragua, Please; Repression Is a Fact.” I pointed out that a year after the supposedly democratic 1984 elections, Daniel Ortega “proclaimed a state of emergency, suspending all civil liberties and political rights, including what Managua calls the right to ‘seek, receive and spread information and ideas.’”

I also wrote two articles for the New Republic, in which I recorded my impressions of the country in 1983 and 1987, respectively. In 1983, I saw a “slow but clear movement toward a Cuban-style regime,” and in the second, I saw “few signs of pluralism, and government repression [that] has become fierce and pervasive.” No longer could opposition parties publish their own newspapers—the last time that happened was in 1985, before the regime proclaimed a state of emergency.

By the Sandinistas’ own admission, these new measures had nothing to do with the war against the contras, they were intended to persecute the patriotic domestic opposition. Labor leaders protesting wage cuts were accused of “economic sabotage,” a phrase used by the Soviet Union in the first purges in the 1920. Tomas Borge, then head of the Interior Ministry, said that the only way the revolution could succeed was through “coercion by the state” and “development of our counter-espionage services.” His operatives were trained by agents of the notorious East German STASI, who taught them well how to create a fearsome secret police that could successfully terrorize the population.

Emulating Cuba, the Sandinistas set up revolutionary block committees to engage in regular surveillance of their neighbors; they also set up “people’s courts” to convict citizens of political crimes at which confessions were introduced that had been extracted from prisoners held incommunicado. In 1986, a 29-year-old defector testified before the US Congress that, since 1979, the regime had assassinated 2000 political opponents—an allegation he supported with names, dates, and places.

If Kinzer distrusts my conclusions about Nicaragua, he might instead consult a major 1987 article in the Washington Post by reporter William Branigan, entitled “Pattern of Abuses Laid to Sandinistas.” In May of that year, Branigan reported on “18 days of suffering and terror for one of the thousands of Nicaraguans who have passed through the Sandinista prison system.” Like countless others, the woman he interviewed was thrown into a tiny lice-infected cell with a steel door, no light, and only a hole in the ceiling to let in some air. A nurse was given a 30-year sentence for an “offense against public order and security.” Her crime? She was accused of treating wounded contras. Although she was two months pregnant, she was beaten, sexually abused by guards, and denied food and water for three days. Minister of the Interior Borge called such acts “revolutionary justice.” Branigan concluded that the Sandinista government “violates the human rights of its citizens on a large scale.”

Alternatively, Kinzer could consult another lengthy report in his own paper, the New York Times, by his colleague on the Nicaragua beat, James Lemoyne. Writing in June of 1987, Lemoyne reported that the Sandinista Army had “committed serious human rights abuses in the southern border region of Nicaragua, according to interviews with several refugees who fled to Costa Rica” as well as “accounts from other peasants still in southern Nicaragua and investigations by two American human-rights groups.” Those investigations collected testimony of “bombings of peasant hamlets and shootings.” Refugees he interviewed “were unanimous in accusing the Sandinistas and not the rebels of human rights violations.” Lemoyne reported that the army had forced 6,000 peasants from their homes, charging them with supporting the contras, and had designated the area a “free fire zone.” As in Vietnam, that meant they were permitted to shoot any civilians living there who refused their orders. In April of that year, he wrote, Sandinista soldiers had fired on unarmed refugees trying to cross the San Juan River into Costa Rica, killing seven and wounding five.

In another article published that same month, Lemoyne reported that 6,000 peasants were told to pack their bags and abandon their homes and were then sent to a resettlement camp 12 miles away. A total of 17 villages were forcibly evacuated in the southern war zone, and he estimates that a total of 100,000 Nicaraguans suffered the same fate after the war against the contra rebels began. He also noted that the Sandinistas “appear to be guilty of serious human rights abuses in their treatment of peasants here,” citing reports published by two American human-rights groups, The Puebla Institute and Americas Watch. (I participated in the Puebla Institute’s human rights mission.)

Kinzer is undoubtedly correct when he argues that these violations do not compare to those committed in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador by right-wing death squads, sometimes allied with the official armed forces in those nations that enjoyed US backing. Nevertheless, many journalists and columnists writing for the left-leaning US press were painfully slow to acknowledge the reality of Sandinista repression, if they ever acknowledged it at all.

* * *

Should the examples I've cited above not be enough to jog his memory, Kinzer might prefer to revisit his own 1983 evaluation of Nicaragua for the New York Times Magazine. He was a good deal more critical of the Sandinistas at the time than he is prepared to be in retrospect. “Nicaraguans who engage in systematic criticism of the Government,” he wrote, “are being closely watched, their freedom of speech and assembly is restricted, and they are subject to harassment and arrest.” The Sandinista newspapers functioned as “relentless cheerleaders” for the government, while the opposition paper, La Prensa, found that articles

that criticize faulty public services, quote opposition leaders or portray Cuba or the Soviet Union in an unfavorable light are normally censored, though editors discreetly circulate photocopies among friends and foreign diplomats. No foreign newspapers are available. The country's only television news program is run by the Government, and a reporter for one of the remaining private radio stations told me he had to report the news "in a certain way" if he wanted to keep his job.

While the poor peasants and city laborers didn’t care much about issues like press freedom, Kinzer reported that they were disillusioned by “chronic shortages, ration cards and long lines in stores.” When he visited a general store in Jinotega, he wrote that “Nearly every one of the 50 or so customers who passed through the store” while he was there, “had something nasty to say about the Sandinistas.” He also acknowledged that diplomats told him “the Sandinista comandantes rarely take a major step in foreign or domestic policy without consulting Havana.” Finally, he concluded that the Sandinistas “have not shown the ability to govern efficiently on their own.” It is no wonder he reported that thousands of Cubans were in Nicaragua—not just teachers and doctors, but also “high-ranking military officers and counterintelligence experts.”

And what guided the revolution? Kinzer informed his readers that Daniel Ortega’s brother, the Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, told him that “Marxism-Leninism is the scientific doctrine that guides our revolution.” In other words, the Sandinista leadership unambiguously sought the creation of a second Cuba in the Western Hemisphere—a regime allied with the Soviet Union that could provide another destabilizing threat to the West’s war on Communist totalitarianism.

In 1990, the late expert on Central America, Robert S. Leiken, predicted that the Sandinistas were likely to lose the February national election to the opposition candidate, Violeta Chamorro, in spite of an extensive campaign of harassment, bribery, and intimidation. Prior to the election, the Sandinistas brought out the turbas, the so-called “divine mobs,” that they used to threaten and beat up opponents. By mid-December 1989, seven opposition leaders had been murdered, 12 had disappeared, 20 had been arrested, and 30 others assaulted. In late January 1990, the Organization of American States’ observer team reported that “a convoy of troops attacked four truckloads of UNO [the major opposition party] sympathizers with bayonets and rifle butts, threatening to kill them.”

Leiken’s prediction of a Sandinista electoral defeat was by no means widely shared. The general consensus in the US at the time was that they would win another comfortable victory. But Leiken understood that “people are tired of Sandinista coercion and corruption and a standard of living that has fallen 90 percent since the revolution in 1979.” His op-ed ended by quoting President Óscar Arias of Costa Rica, who told him that it was “inconceivable that the Sandinistas could win a fair election.”

Was the Sandinista political party, the FSLN (the Sandinista National Liberation Front), a Marxist party seeking to build a socialist revolution, or nationalist party seeking independence from the United States and social reforms that would benefit the poorest in the country? The evidence shows that its leadership considered themselves to be communists. Writing in the New York Review of Books in December 1985, Leiken quotes Comandante Bayardo Arce, leader of what was once the most radical faction in a disunited FSLN before the overthrow of Somoza. All factions believed in building a Cuban-style socialist state, he said, but had agreed in 1977 not to announce that goal “in an open way.”

Speaking in May 1984, Arce told his “fellow communists” in the Nicaraguan Socialist Party that the elections that year were only held for the benefit of Western liberals—or as some called its gullible supporters, “useful idiots.” The purpose of the elections was to “disarm the international bourgeoisie” and to hoodwink the US. Controlled elections would enable them to create a new “Red constitution,” at which point they would discard “this whole artifice of pluralism … which has been useful up to now, but has reached its end.” The democratic opposition stood no chance. As Leiken remarked:

The FSLN controlled the cabinet, the state security apparatus, and the army, the militias, the police, state TV, and radio. The local block committees (the Sandinista Defense Committees—CDS) in charge of such basic functions as ration cards, visas, and applications for public jobs and housing, had become extensions of the Sandinista party. Opposition groups had been forbidden to hold outdoor rallies since early 1981; political and trade union activists were frequently detained or imprisoned, and opposition offices were attacked by Sandinista mobs called turbas; pamphlets and newspapers were confiscated. The Sandinistas encouraged people loyal to them to join the opposition parties and trade unions and form factions with them.

In other words, the Sandinistas were certainly not the “idealistic young comandantes” of Kinzer’s imagination. Kinzer is nostalgic for the “global explosion of enthusiasm the likes of which had not been seen since the Spanish Civil War.” But this “enthusiasm” was supported by the same pro-Soviet Left who convinced themselves that the Cuban revolution was also something nationalist, independent, democratic, romantic, and inspirational. In Cuba, too, the US Left sponsored “Venceremos Brigades” to work in the fields, and developed front groups like “Fair Play for Cuba” and later CISPES, to defend the Castro regime and other revolutionaries in Central America from what they believed to be the propagandistic lies and misinformation of their conservative critics.

One could, of course, have opposed the Reagan administration’s policy of supporting the contras and remained honest about the FSLN’s goals and methods. But a number of idealistic journalists and activists preferred to retreat into a maddening kind of denial that persists to this day.

* * *

The truth of what was happening in Nicaragua was hardly a secret. When Kinzer declares that Ortega’s degeneration into “the most brutal ruler in his country’s history” was not foreseeable, he should speak for himself. Nor was Ortega ever “a soft-spoken, introverted, even self-effacing revolutionary,” even though it is true that he had been “a Boy Scout and once considered entering the priesthood.”

Other, more clear-eyed journalists were less enchanted. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Shirley Christian, who covered Nicaragua at the same time as Kinzer, arrived at an entirely different conclusion. In her 1985 book, Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family, Christian persuasively argued that “the leaders of the Sandinista Front intended to establish a Leninist system from the day they marched into Managua, whether they called it that or not.” In a review of her book for the New York Times, Timothy Garton Ash wrote that Christian provided “a wealth of detail to demonstrate … beyond reasonable doubt that the Sandinistas set out from the start to gain for themselves as much power as possible, permanently, and to use lies, lawlessness and violence against their political opponents when these seemed necessary to achieve that end.” As for Ortega, Christian reminds her readers that when he spoke at the United Nations, he consistently “took positions that were anti-United States, anti-Chinese and pro-Soviet.”

Indeed, Ortega thought like any Soviet leader. During a late-night interview with the members of Mayor Ed Koch’s “New York City Delegation to Central America” in 1987, I asked Ortega if he favored, as Castro once did, an expansion of the revolution throughout Central America. Looking perplexed, he replied, “No. That would be Trotskyism.” The exiled Bolshevik leader believed, contrary to Stalin, that the revolution could only succeed if major revolutions took place in advanced Western countries. Stalin was intent on building “socialism in one country.” As for the literacy program that Kinzer sentimentally extols, Christian points out that learning Spanish was reduced to “skills equivalent to only the first year or two of primary school”—barely sufficient to read the FSLN’s primitive propaganda.

That was true then and—since Ortega regained the presidency and changed election law to guarantee lifetime rule for himself and his cronies—it remains the case now. Obviously, Ortega and his wife have upped the ante, making it impossible for any opposition candidate who might stand a chance to even run for office. He no longer spouts Marxist ideology, he has reconciled with the Catholic Church, whose Archbishop now supports his reign in power, and he has cut deals with the business community that protects their holdings and wealth. But he has succeeded in making his rule permanent, without the problems his party faced when waging the contra war while allied with the Soviet bloc.

Kinzer is correct that Ortega is no better than Somoza, the dictator who imprisoned him for seven long years, but he is quite wrong to argue that this is a regrettable new development. Daniel Ortega is just another in the long list of Latin and Central America caudillos. It is long past time for those formerly sympathetic to his regime to acknowledge the mistakes the Left made during the Cold War. They were duped by ruthless and cynical men who starved their own countries in the name of idealism that never really existed. Ortega, Castro, and Maduro haven't changed. They are enemies of liberty and democracy, and they always have been.

PoliticsForeign AffairsLatin AmericaLong Read

Ronald Radosh

Ronald Radosh is Professor Emeritus of History at CUNY and the co-author of, among many other books, A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.