Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 73 | Julio 1987



The First 3,000 Days: Revolution in Review

Nitlápan-Envío team

The Sandinista revolution’s first 3,000 days have been marked by a series of confrontations by the United States—the strongest imperial power of our time—against Nicaragua, a small third world country where 50% of the population is under 15 years of age. Washington has sought to destroy this revolution in order to reassert the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America and thus reveal to the world the resurgence of a new US hegemony.

Nicaragua has resisted, consolidating its revolution, in order to demonstrate to Latin America the viability of an independent and united Latin American stance—a "Bolivarian" position, in the tradition of Latin American hero Simón Bolívar who fought for Latin American unity. Nicaragua has also sought to show the world—including the United States—the alternative of a process of social change, respectful of international law, that can contribute to peace in today's multi-polar, nuclear world.

It has been a total war, waged by both sides on political, military, diplomatic, economic and military terrain. And it has been a fight to the death. In 3,000 days of revolution there have been over 42,000 victims on both sides of the US-sponsored war. Backed by the ever-present threat of direct US intervention, the contras have waged their irregular warfare against targets in the Central, Atlantic and Pacific regions of Nicaragua. And in all three of these regions the Sandinista revolution has attempted to reverse their advances and consolidate its own position. In the international arena, the Contadora group, currently the most important expression of Latin American independence and solidarity, has found itself caught in the crossfire.

There are three possible outcomes to this ongoing conflict. The first would be direct US intervention in Nicaragua. The second is a negotiated peace in which the two countries would coexist peaceably and neither would renounce its sovereign rights. The third would be even greater prolongation of the conflict, leaving open the final outcome.

To evaluate the eight years of revolution in Nicaragua, we must analyze the character and emergent trends of this conflict. The first part of this article presents a brief description of Reagan's "Monroe Doctrine" project, as contrasted with the Sandinistas' "Bolivarian" one—both test cases for the international community. In the second we analyze the 3,000 days of the conflict, synthesizing the internal logic of the political, military, ideological and economic conflicts within the country, as well as their connection to the international sphere. In the third part we analyze the likelihood of success of each of the three possible outcomes: intervention, negotiation and prolongation. Our analysis points out the growing difficulties that the intervention option confronts and the costs of the prolongation option for both the United States and Nicaragua. We show how, after eight years of conflict, the potential for a negotiated solution—between the Sandinista government and liberal and pragmatic conservative politicians in the United States—may in fact be growing.

Through the Monroe looking glass

Since 1979, starting with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in support of the Kabul regime, US-Soviet relations have entered a period of particular coldness and mutual distrust. In Ronald Reagan's two terms, he has promoted a so-called strategic view in order to justify the growing friction between the two powers and his return to a cold war.

The Reagan administration took as its point of departure a stated belief in Soviet superiority in strategic and conventional weapons, which the Soviets supposedly managed to achieve during the period of détente. According to the Reagan administration, this superiority can be seen in the Soviet Union's willingness to engage in conventional conflicts in various parts of the third world for the purpose of extending its influence. Were it not for the Soviets, said Reagan at the start of his first term, there would be no "hot spots" in the world. Although the Reagan administration has conceded over time that internal factors do play a role in regional conflicts, this initial interpretation hasn’t varied much in substance.

Coming from this world view, the Republicans say that the confrontational stance towards the USSR is to close the military gap opened by détente and eventually attain military superiority. This politics of confrontation would not only have a direct effect on the socialist bloc, but would also allow for containment—even a rollback—of the "Soviet advance" in the third world.

Just as a certain geopolitical vision was needed at the beginning of US imperial expansion in the late 19th century, and another vision was called for in the heyday of expansionism in the first decades of this century, today's times, for the Reagan administration, demanded a new geopolitical perspective. This perspective is characterized as boldly confronting the risks of a US decline in the international arena, and reestablishing Washington as the seat of world hegemony.

Between 1974 and 1981, the United States unsuccessfully opposed the coming to power of no less than 14 third world governments that did not follow the US line, including, among others, Angola, Mozambique, Grenada, Iran, Vietnam and Guinea-Bissau. Latin America was seen, through Reagan's Monroe Doctrine looking glass (the Santa Fe Committee), as a "security shield" and a "sword of US global power projection." By virtue of their strategic geopolitical location, Nicaragua, together with El Salvador, were chosen as test cases to demonstrate to the world US determination to reestablish its imperial hegemony.

Although the Reagan administration's objectives regarding the region were clearly defined, the strategy to follow towards Nicaragua was a subject of debate within the US government. The two basic options were direct military intervention, using a combination of US and Central American or Latin American troops, or support for a counterrevolutionary guerrilla force. During the course of Reagan's presidency the emphasis gradually shifted to the latter option as the best way to achieve the goal, to use Reagan's own words, of "replacing the structure of Sandinista power."

The contra forces, supported and led by Washington, were charged with military actions that would permit the application of a series of political, diplomatic and economic pressures leading ultimately to the defeat of the Managua government, whether political or military. As a complement, the United States itself built up its military infrastructure in the whole Central American region, especially Honduras, both to increase the contra pressure against Nicaragua and to have the road literally paved for a direct military intervention if that were judged necessary.

The gradual transition away from direct intervention and towards a counterrevolutionary war was largely due to the Nicaraguan government’s political and military efforts to defend its revolution. Nicaragua built up its diplomatic alliances as well as its military and political capacity to dissuade the United States from intervening directly. The costs to the United States of a direct intervention climbed higher every day and it appears now that the US has understood the message.

Changes in the international sphere also influenced this shift in the US military strategy. By the early 1980s, the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, the followers of Sihanouk, UNITA, RENAMO, the Somocistas and others, quietly supported by the CIA, were already harassing the governments made up of the movements that the United States had fought against in previous years in Vietnam, Kampuchea, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua and other countries. Moreover, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had generated a broad movement of armed resistance and Soviet support for the Ethiopian regime clashed with the ethnic guerrilla forces of Eritrea and Tigre. Lumping authentic national liberation movements together with conflicts in which the Soviet Union was flexing its geopolitical muscle, the Reagan administration decided to support all of the armed opposition groups as a new strategy in the third world, quite independent of the specific problems of each case. In 1985, the US Congress lifted the ban on aid to the Angolan contras, gave public support and economic aid to the Kampuchean and Afghan resistance, and approved "humanitarian aid" for the Nicaraguan contras.

Since Nicaragua was seen as a test case and is close to the US border, its revolution bore the brunt of Washington's new pro-insurgency strategy to reverse the advance of national liberation movements in the third world. In the same region, the FMLN revolutionaries were confronting Washington's counterinsurgency strategy, the other side of the strategic coin. For the Reagan administration, if the failure of the Bay of Pigs revealed the need to support insurgency to the hilt, the US "loss" of Vietnam showed the need to do the same for counterinsurgency—and to do it all without involving US troops directly.

The administration's reading of the Central American scene is completed by its characterization of Cuba as a "Soviet vassal state," an "extra-continental aggressor" and an "organizer of subversion in the region." The Central American conflict has thus been converted into a decisive chapter of the struggle against the Soviet Union, which, in this Reaganite vision, is trying through Cuba and Nicaragua to create its first enclave on American continental soil.

Bolivarism reborn in Nicaragua

The Sandinistas have repeatedly insisted that they do not recognize themselves in the Reagan administration's portrayal. The Nicaraguan revolution came to power in 1979, at a time when the international economic crisis was intensifying the need for social change in the third world. Because of this, and because of the Central American region's geopolitical context, the Sandinistas conceived of their movement as a struggle for national self-determination and social emancipation, which included three principal currents: nationalism, represented by the historic struggles of the Nicaraguan people, especially the anti-imperialist one led by Augusto César Sandino; liberating Christianity, present in the insurrectionary culture of the people; and Marxism, read critically and filtered through the revolutionary experiences of other peoples. This synthesis responded to "the logic of the majority," which in a society as underdeveloped as Nicaragua's should determine the setting of priorities if the intention is to create more just social structures. Using these principles, gradually synthesized and transformed through a complex process, the Sandinistas have sought to carry out a program of political pluralism, mixed economy and genuine nonalignment.

The outline of such a project has necessarily had to be broad in order to respond adequately, without sacrificing principles, to such changing and dramatic moments as those faced by Nicaragua and Central America as a whole. The result is an agile and zigzag history, not without its errors as well as successes. Far from making the Nicaraguan revolutionary difficult to understand, this flexibility is part of the very definition and particularity of the Sandinista movement. As the Sandinistas point out, the Reaganites' inability or unwillingness to understand the flexible Sandinista ideology is a function of their own ideological rigidity.

But the Sandinista revolution is more than just another social and national revolution. The fact that it took place in an area the United States has traditionally considered its backyard gives it a regional and international dimension. The revolution becomes the expression of a new "Bolivarism," a new stance of Latin American unity and independence. The Sandinistas are aware that Nicaragua is a metaphor for our times, a test case of social justice and national self-determination in the third world.

Nicaragua has learned through its own experience—and thus can teach the rest of the world—that the US effort to reassert hegemony is dangerous not only for Nicaragua but also for the economic development and national sovereignty of Latin America and the rest of the third world. Not even Europe is untouched by this reality, because in the nuclear era it is impossible to build international peace if regional conflicts remain unsettled. Moreover, the natural resources and extensive markets of the peripheral countries offer economic benefits that Europe sorely needs. There is, then, a convergence of interests that could at one and the same time promote third world development and a strengthening of Europe. The relations between Europe and Nicaragua, and Central America in general, are thus also a test case for that possibility. The Soviet Union and the developed socialist countries also are faced with a test: whether they can demonstrate their international solidarity without trying to direct or impose models that do not correspond to the international balance of power or the geopolitical reality of Central America today. Indeed, Nicaragua could become a new term of reference, a test case for future international relations.

Beyond the military conflict between the United States and Nicaragua, therefore, can be seen a wider struggle, with its roots deep in history: the conflict between the imperial Monroe Doctrine and Latin American unity and independence.

Three thousand days of an unfair fight

According to our analysis, the military, political and ideological struggle in Nicaragua between Reagan and the Sandinistas has had two clear periods of confrontation. In the first (1981 to 1984), the counterrevolution made significant advances. Its forces made strides in the country's central section, and on the Atlantic Coast the complex ethnic problem became a breeding ground for anti-Sandinista sentiment. At the same time, the political and religious counterrevolution sought to make progress in the country's principal Pacific coast cities.

In the second period (1984 to 1987), the Sandinista revolution was able to turn these trends around. Supported by the peasants and adapting itself militarily to the contra war, the FSLN increasingly gained the upper hand against the counterrevolution. Taking up the ethnic demands, the revolution stemmed the tide of the Atlantic coast’s insurgency, promoting popular political power there. With the elections, and following them the promulgation of the Constitution, the Sandinistas consolidated their political leadership throughout the country, particularly in the large cities. Beginning in 1985, the presence of the Church of the Poor in a more organized form, together with the Sandinistas' policy on religion and the contras' decline, helped neutralize the reactionary forces within the Church. This in turn strengthened the kind of cultural values promoted by the revolution and the nation.

US aggression and Nicaraguan defense have involved both actions and reactions on many fronts—political, diplomatic, economic and ideological. But the military front is primary; it is at the core of the wider conflict and is what gives the other parts their dynamism.

Sandinista military defense

Right after taking power, the Sandinista government transformed its guerrilla forces into a regular army. The experience of the insurrection and the difficult economic situation inherited from the Somoza dictatorship made it advisable to create a core group of new armed forces, efficient and professional, to be supplemented by the people’s massive participation in military tasks if the revolution were attacked. The development of these forces, crucial for a patriotic war of resistance, was a key element; with their development the costs of direct intervention grew higher and higher.

When Reagan came to power, such intervention became a real possibility. Therefore, while the Reagan administration built up the military infrastructure in Honduras necessary to launch an invasion, and conducted nearly permanent military maneuvers by land, sea and air, familiarizing more than 75,000 US soldiers with the area’s geographic and climatic conditions, the Sandinistas managed to arm over 200,000 Nicaraguan citizens in an organized fashion, which would allow them to wage both a war of movement and, in case of intervention, an urban and rural guerrilla war. Given that there would be no borders in the case of intervention, these forces could be expected to join up with the Salvadoran guerrillas, thus complicating the Central American situation for the United States. US military experts estimated that US troops would be unable to pull out of the region for at least four years, while Central American revolutionaries believe that the US would become involved in a Lebanon-type situation in which it would simply be unable to enforce stability in the region.

the Reagan administration used Nicaragua's military capacity, basically oriented toward defense in case of a US invasion, as proof that the Nicaraguan revolution had expansionist intentions in Central America. But Sandinista military power is in fact exclusively defensive. Not only is the Sandinista government uninterested in anything beyond a defensive capacity, the country’s economic and material conditions prohibit the development of any kind of offensive or expansionist policy. Oil, of vital importance in any war, is completely imported, and to only one port, which could easily be neutralized. The Sandinista Army currently uses some 25% of civilian transport for its mobilizations, a limitation that would affect any significant expansionist tactics. Moreover, Nicaragua's extremely limited air transport, both civil and military, would mean that its forces would soon be left without logistical support for any actions outside of national territory. Food and military supplies for Nicaragua's troops would have to be imported, since Nicaragua has no military industry, and its food processing industry is insufficient even under normal circumstances, to say nothing of lacking the enormous quantities of raw materials that would be required. A mere US naval blockade of Nicaragua's ports would thus make it impossible to maintain any kind of expansionist adventure.

Although Nicaragua’s structural limitations make it impossible to wage an offensive military strategy even if it wanted to, these limitations are not an obstacle to a defensive guerrilla confrontation against US troops on Nicaraguan soil. Aware of Nicaragua's limitations, but also aware of the potential of a defensive army such as that developed by Nicaragua, the Reagan administration has slowly stepped back from the intervention option. Nonetheless, Reagan has always left the possibility open, both to have it at hand should circumstances ever permit and to reinforce the contras, the real protagonists of the US strategy of aggression.

Maintaining the threat of intervention also enables the Reagan administration to use international diplomatic blackmail, to pressure Congress and to beef up the psychological warfare against Nicaraguans. In addition, it has obliged the revolutionary government to maintain a military structure prepared to respond to such an intervention. This diverts scarce material and human resources needed to confront the wide-ranging tactics of the contras' irregular war.

The challenge has been enormous. The Sandinista revolution has accepted it, managing to maintain a military force based primarily on a regular army and reserve military service built to withstand an invasion, while at the same time strengthening its offensive against the irregular forces of the FDN and ARDE, the main forces of the US-sponsored aggression. In this the Sandinistas are aided by the local militias and members of the self-defense cooperatives, civilians who voluntarily defend their revolutionary gains against contra attacks.

The counterrevolutionary plan

In 1983, the FDN, the main anti-Sandinista force, attempted to carry out a strategy aimed at building a social base in selected areas of the countryside, and thus weaken the Sandinista rear guard in the interior of the country. This social base would allow the contras, led by the former National Guard, to expand their military actions as well as legitimize and strengthen their image as an alternative power inside the country and internationally. Their principal arena would be the mountainous central region of the country, wedged between the Pacific and the Atlantic. The peasants in this area, especially those living in the most isolated zones, could be goaded either into resentment for some wrong in the immediate past or into fear of an uncertain future. The resentment might be about the way the hoped-for agrarian reform either was or was not implemented, or about the economic problems resulting from the deficient supply, commerce and service networks. The fear would be of "communism," feeding off a traditional religious ideology, with some basis in real or perceived errors of the government and its clashes with the religious hierarchy. The actions emanating from the northern border would be reinforced in the south by ARDE, which would also contribute a democratic image.

In the Atlantic Coast, a strong ethnic consciousness found its expression as a result of the same revolution. But the Sandinistas, with their class-based views, did not know how to interpret the ethnic demands. Leaders who would soon head the armed indigenous organizations—Misura, allied with the FDN in the north, and Misurasata, allied with ARDE in the south—used this fundamental error to provoke a counterrevolutionary attitude, particularly among the Miskitus.

In the urban zones of the Pacific, the main counterrevolutionary front would have a political-ideological character at the beginning, based in the coalition of pro-Reagan parties called the Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinator (CDN), rightwing trade unions, the umbrella business organization COSEP, sectors of the Catholic Church hierarchy and the newspaper La Prensa, which provided the public voice for all these groups and for individualistic public discontent. The plan was that, as conditions ripened, this opposition force would coalesce into an internal front, also of a military nature.

If the probability of direct intervention was the propagandistic focal point of the US campaign of aggression, the counterrevolutionary guerrillas were its essence. And if their military activities were aimed at catalyzing the opposition political forces, the economic aggression was supposed to create the material spark to multiply and ignite these forces. The contra offensive was topped off with diplomatic, political, economic and ideological actions carried out directly by Washington, in which the ultimate goal was to "replace" the Sandinista power structure.

To achieve this goal, the Reagan administration has contemplated an array of possibilities ranging from the completely military one (including direct intervention if the overall erosion of the Sandinistas were sufficient to free the United States from the costs of a "Lebanonization"), through a less costly and therefore preferable political-diplomatic surrender by the Sandinistas, to the ultimate fantasy of the Reagan forces: an internal insurrection such as the one that overthrew Somoza. The possibility that the Sandinistas will yield is what lies behind the constant US proposal for dialogue between the counterrevolution and the Sandinistas.

The contras in action

The FDN succeeded in 1983 and 1984 in creating an incipient peasant social base in the remote zones of the central region. This, together with their forced recruitment of peasants, allowed them to grow from some 5,000 men in 1982 to 12,000 in 1983 and 15,000 in 1984. Although supplies for the armed groups inside Nicaragua came mainly by air from their rearguards in Honduras and Costa Rica, they slowly increased their capacity to supply themselves. Information gained from their own networks also grew, although they always depended mainly on what the US spy flights provided them. They began to increase their tactical rearguard inside the country, building training camps, field hospitals, etc. This allowed them to create six Regional Commands as basic operating units. With some 1,000 men in each command, they were able to split up into task forces, tactical units and detachments for specific actions, thanks to an efficient communications system.

The contras thus managed to pass from a border war to penetration deep inside national territory, and even occasional coordinated actions with the ARDE forces operating from the south. As a consequence, the economic costs of the military aggression increased 400% in 1983 and 600% in 1984 over those of 1982. In 1984, the peak year of the anti-Sandinista actions, the contras caused material damages equal to 70% of Nicaragua's exports and reported 1,500 armed encounters, the majority of which, unlike now, were at their initiative. The military actions of Misura and Misurasata in the Atlantic Coast were part of this same offensive.

In the same year, the political-ideological front sought to create arenas in the main provincial cities of the Pacific as a prior step to military actions there. The CDN took advantage of the electoral campaign to lash out viciously against the FSLN and call for government dialogue with the contras. The Catholic hierarchy also spoke publicly in favor of a "dialogue of national reconciliation," clothing its proposal in Christian arguments. The previous year the bishops had come out against the government for implementing the draft, a strategic instrument for confronting the aggression.

To avoid legitimizing the Sandinistas, the CDN decided to abstain from the elections. The Catholic hierarchy put out a document similar to one they had published in the last Somocista elections in 1974, when the opposition slogan was "There’s no one to vote for." During the whole pre-electoral period, La Prensa acted exclusively as the voice of the CDN and the Catholic hierarchy.

Meanwhile, Reagan gave the threat of direct intervention a high profile. The effort to make the revolution surrender through dialogue with the counterrevolution was also taken up by the "Tegucigalpa Triangle"—Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica—as a pressure point on the Contadora Group negotiation effort.

Sandinista military counteroffensive

At first, defense against the contras was mainly the responsibility of the Fight Against Somocista Bands, small units designed to respond to the early contra bands dedicated to robbery, political killings, etc. As the siege began to intensify in 1982, these units were replaced by Reserve Infantry Battalions made up of militia volunteers, mobilized for a period of four to eight months. The militia members, generally youth from the cities, had limited military preparation and experience, and did not know the rural terrain. Although the Reserve Infantry Battalions neutralized a significant number of FDN plans, the contras began to take the initiative in the war.

In 1983, the military escalation threatened to overrun the Reserve Infantry Battalions. At that point Nicaragua, which had dedicated its best military forces to preparing for an eventual US invasion, had to turn its attention more seriously to the counterrevolutionary guerrilla forces. The beefing up of the contra forces was the counterpart on the battlefield of the clarification process going on in Washington in response to Nicaragua's dissuasive strength. If the White House replaced its direct intervention strategy for one of an irregular war, keeping alive the interventionist threat at all times, Nicaragua also had to retool its strategy.

The new design put in motion by the Sandinistas at the end of 1983 was an attempt to combine political and military factors. They had to undermine the incipient social base that the contras had gained in the countryside and to strengthen their own. To this end they reorganized their structures to coordinate implementation of the various measures in a single plan of action. They also sought to strengthen their alliance with the landless peasants who had been untended due to the national unity policy that involved respecting the large productive capitalists.

The agrarian reform made real advances, as more lands were given over and legal guarantees were offered so that the small landholders would feel assured of their plots. In 1983 and 1984 the provision of titles to peasant families increased 100% and 500% respectively over 1982. At the same time, an effort was made to renew a series of economic and social services in rural areas, making use of the operational support bases that the Sandinista Army was establishing in areas where its presence was growing. In other cases, much more difficult to manage politically, some populations were resettled. All these measures, in addition to the negative effects on the peasants of the contras' indiscriminate murder of civilians, substantially weakened the FDN.

At the same time, the government qualitatively broadened its operative military capacity. In October 1983 the Patriotic Military Service Law was approved, making two years of military service obligatory for all males between the ages of 18 and 25. The increased number of young soldiers and the intensive training they received permitted a substantial improvement in Sandinista firepower. The Irregular Combat Battalions, made up of the young recruits, became the main military units in the counterinsurgency war.

As a complement to this, the operational support bases created by the army permitted control over greater extensions of terrain. The territorial organization of the militia, based in their own communities and workplaces, complemented this area of permanent control by the revolution.

Given the advances in the peasant alliance, improved territorial coverage, increased firepower and improvements in air technology (the MI-17 and MI-25 helicopters) and artillery (BM-21), the counterrevolution began to seriously decline in 1985. The FDN, which had some 15,000 men in arms in 1984, was reduced to 6,500 by the end of 1986. ARDE, hounded militarily by the Army and undermined by ideological battles with the FDN, had to abandon the struggle in 1986.

The economic costs of the military aggression diminished 30% in 1985 and 50% in 1986 relative to 1984. In 90% of the armed clashes with the counterrevolutionaries in 1986, the army had the initiative, pursuing the contras into terrain where they had previously been untouched. It must be noted that throughout the war, even in their best moments, the FDN forces have never been able to take cities or major population centers. The trend of the counterrevolution's strategic decline has been confirmed so far in 1987, despite a major offensive designed to show a skeptical Congress that they merit additional aid.

Sandinista political counteroffensive

In the Atlantic Coast, Misura and Misurasata felt the impact of the new military offensive as well. A newer organization, Kisan, was an effort by the CIA in late 1985 to regroup them to maintain an armed counterrevolutionary presence on the Coast. That US effort at unification of the fractious Miskitu military leaders was no more successful than a new one, initiated in the past several months, is proving to be. By now, the greatly reduced armed groups are virtually in a phase of extinction, maintained only by the promise of a lifeline to part of the contra funding.

The armed indigenous groups on the coast, however, were weakened even more by the political actions of the revolution than by military ones. As the Sandinistas began to understand the importance of the ethnic factor in that region, they started modifying their policies as early as four years ago.

By the end of 1983, a general amnesty was declared for anyone from the coast involved in contra activity, and in late 1984 talks began between the Sandinistas and some of the armed indigenous groups. More decisive than any other element, however, was the process initiated at the end of 1984 that would turn the legitimate demands of the coast's ethnic groups, collectively expressed as regional autonomy, into law. A long and complex process of grassroots discussion preceded the approval of the project in a multiethnic assembly in April 1987.

At the point at which the revolution took up the indigenous demands, the armed struggle lost its rationale. In the last two and a half years, 1,200 fighters, encouraged by their families, have taken advantage of the amnesty. Another 500 have left to join Kisan Pro Peace, which now functions as an armed territorial militia in some of the communities. Relations between the revolution and the coastal population have thus entered into a phase of cautious but growing stability.

Combining the political with the military, the Sandinistas defended both the central and Atlantic regions, thus frustrating Washington's plans. These advances in turn had an impact on the counterrevolutionary political plan in the Pacific region. As the contras' military option slipped out of reach, the possibilities of forming a political front coordinated with the armed groups became increasingly difficult. The counterrevolution, in the best of cases, has always had problems presenting itself as a viable political alternative.


Summary of the law of autonomous regions in the Atlantic Coast
Two autonomous regions will be established, one in Special Zone I (north) and the other in Special Zone II (south). Other zones traditionally part of the Atlantic Coast will be incorporated into their respective regions when conditions permit.

The communities of the coast will have an autonomous government that will guarantee their historic rights (official use of their languages, preservation of their religion, culture, forms of land ownership and transference, bilingual-bicultural education, benefits of the natural resources, etc.).

The communities of the coast form part of the Nicaraguan state with all the corresponding rights and duties.

Defense of life, homeland, justice and peace for the comprehensive development of the nation is a duty of the communities of the autonomous regions.

The highest authorities of the autonomous regions will, in their respective spheres, be the Regional Council and the Regional Coordinator.

The Regional Council, made up of 30 to 50 representatives of all the ethnic groups, will be popularly chosen in elections called by the Supreme Electoral Council for a period of four years.

The Regional Council will elect the Regional Coordinator from among its members to fulfill executive functions. The Regional Coordinator will have a position compatible with the Presidential Representative.

The Regional Council will administer a budget consisting of regional taxes, investment transfers from the national budget and a Special Development Fund to come from national and international sources.


In its military defense, the Sandinista government almost necessarily took the political offensive. In the central region of the country it re-encountered the peasantry and strengthened it as one of the strategic classes of the revolutionary process. In the Atlantic it opened itself up to the ethnic world, coming to respect it as a motor force of the region. Although both alliances will have to be consolidated slowly, it is clear that the Sandinistas have the political initiative. In the Pacific and in the principal cities of the country, the revolution sought to neutralize the Reagan political plan by strengthening both participatory and representative democracy even further.

The Sandinistas have always been critical of those political regimes that sanctify representative democracy to the degree that they try to impose it on Nicaragua as the only form. The Sandinistas, on the contrary, believe it is also necessary to struggle for the economic democratization of society which, especially in underdeveloped societies such as Nicaragua's, requires broad public participation, or participatory democracy. For the Sandinistas, this primary form of democracy actually enriches representative democracy, particularly when carried out among forces that are politically divergent but share the overall objective of the new society being built. In Nicaragua's case, this objective is based in anti-Somocismo and anti-imperialism. The single-party system—predominant up to now in processes of transition to socialism—has been a direct source of bureaucratization and an important obstacle to effective democracy.

Nicaragua has sought to combine both forms of democracy, orienting them to the benefit of the majorities. Since the insurrection, important mobilizations with massive public participation have taken place in health and literacy campaigns, in the militia, in annual volunteer coffee picking, in public consultations on the Constitution and the autonomy project, in neighborhood military preparation against the threats of direct invasion—especially in March 1982 and November 1983—and in the 1984 election campaign.

In this last activity, it was public participation that led to Sandinista success in the results of representative democracy. Seeing these adverse results coming, Washington called the elections a sham even before they were held and the CDN opted to boycott them, proclaiming its abstention and trying to delegitimize them in all the media—hoping to win in the international arena what its saw itself losing in the domestic one. The way the elections were carried out and their results strengthened the revolution internationally and eroded the CDN's already minimal strength internally.

The FSLN won the elections with 63% of the votes cast. The opposition parties obtained a combined 31%, of which 27% went to the three parties of the center and right, and the remaining 4% to the three leftist parties that ran against the FSLN (the remaining 6% of the ballots were annulled due to various errors). The results showed the Sandinistas' hegemony in the Nicaraguan revolutionary process as well as the significant pluralistic weight of the opposition parties (see Table II). More than 75% of the registered voters went to the polls, demonstrating that the election was not a "plebiscite election" (in which there is usually 95% participation, similar to the percentage that votes for the governing party). The turnout corresponded to the average in traditional democracies. (In the United States, 60% of the registered voters went to the polls in 1960, and this percentage has declined further in more recent elections.)

The numerous international organizations of different ideological stripes—delegations from the European Parliament, the Socialist International, European and US churches, etc.—that monitored the elections agreed on the honesty of the process.

Political space for the opposition was thus won and occupied by the parties that agreed to participate in the elections and oppose the Sandinistas at the ballot box (one of which, the Democratic Conservatives, even espoused in their campaign many of the positions taken by the CDN). The strategic decline of the political counterrevolution was also set in motion with this electoral blow.

The Constituent National Assembly, also elected on November 4, 1984, finalized the new version of the Nicaraguan Constitution on November 19, 1986. This Constitution is the legal basis upon which the new Nicaragua will continue to be built. The hopes for the consolidation of national sovereignty, real democracy, a just international order that engenders peace and a social transformation in favor of the poor majority constitute the highest legal expressions of the new social foundations. A mixed economy, participatory and representative democracy and nonalignment are the constitutionally formulated bases for creating a Nicaraguan revolutionary model.


Principal aspects of the new Nicaraguan Constitution
1. Independence, sovereignty and self-determination are undeniable rights of the people and fundamental to the nation. The people have a right and a duty to defend these rights with weapons in hand if necessary. All foreign intervention is an attack on the life of the people.

2. The people exercise democracy by participating freely in the construction of a political, economic and social system that suits their interests. The people exercise power directly through their freely elected representatives according to the norms of universal suffrage via direct, free and secret ballots.

3. The state is the people’s main instrument for eliminating all forms of human submission and exploitation. The state should ensure the nation’s material and spiritual progress and guarantee that the interests and rights of the majority prevail.

4. Political pluralism assures the existence and participation of all political organizations in the economic, political and social affairs of the country without ideological restrictions.

5. A mixed economy assures the existence of different forms of property ownership: public, private, associative, cooperative and communal. All these forms should function in light of the nation’s most important needs and should contribute to the creation of wealth in order to satisfy the needs of the country and its inhabitants.

6. The country's foreign policy is based on the principle of non-alignment, the search for peace and respect for the sovereignty of all nations.

7. The Nicaraguan people are multiethnic in nature. The peoples of the Atlantic Coast have the same rights and obligations as the rest of the Nicaraguan population. The state guarantees autonomy for the coast.

8. The rights to gather peacefully, to demonstrate and to mobilize the public are recognized. Also, the rights to organize, to vote in elections, to be chosen as a candidate and to organize or join a political party that seeks to participate in and compete for power are guaranteed.

9. The state guarantees the democratic coexistence of different forms of property ownership that fulfill a social purpose. Businesses organized in whatever of the different forms of ownership will enjoy equality before the laws of the state.

10. Nicaragua opposes any kind of discrimination. Nicaragua is anti-colonial, anti-racist and rejects all subordination of one state over another. It is part of the Central American nations, whose unity it defends. Nicaragua supports Central American political and economic integration as well as cooperation. Nicaragua hopes for the unity of all peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.


The religious conflict within the political struggle

Contrary to Washington's forecast, the Catholic hierarchy could not consistently fill the political space vacated by Reagan's parties. Due to the presence among the faithful of a vital current of thinking and organizing known as "the Church of the Poor," the hierarchy was unable to achieve complete political control over Church members.

Had this political consolidation been achieved, the confrontational dynamics of the hierarchy toward the state would have been even sharper. In turn, the government's measures to challenge the hierarchy's political intentions would have been stronger and the Sandinistas would have been required to pay even higher national and international political costs.

From the beginning of his first term of office, President Reagan indicated that the Latin American Church of the Poor, which is based on liberation theology, was a danger. The Santa Fe document states that "US foreign policy must begin to counter (not react against) liberation theology as it is used in Latin America by the "liberation theology" clergy.

Although in his visit to Managua, Pope John Paul II forcefully attacked what he termed "the people’s church," the Nicaraguan Church of the Poor did not recognize itself in his characterization and thus did not take the critical consequences of the papal message on board. In the period between 1982 and 1984, the Church of the Poor was able to resist the hierarchy's strong attacks. Beginning in 1985, with Miguel D'Escoto's fast for peace, the Church of the Poor consolidated its internal structures and increased its presence within the official Church. At the same time, despite its own effort to maintain a united front, the Catholic hierarchy showed signs of significant differences between its more moderate members and its radically conservative ones.

In 1980, the FSLN formulated its position on religion, in which it recognized the "inalienable right" to profess a religious faith. The Sandinistas' official statement went well beyond this point by affirming that although "some authors," e.g., Marx and Lenin, have seen religion as a "mechanism of alienation that serves to justify the exploitation of one class by another," the Sandinista experience shows that "when Christians, supported by their faith, are able to respond to the needs of the people and of history, their own beliefs motivate them to be dedicated revolutionaries."

From that point onward, the Sandinistas, countering the Reagan administration's positions, sought to take the lead in the religious arena, one that in other transition processes had been traditionally controlled by reactionaries. Conscious of the calculated risk already demonstrated by history, the same 1980 declaration states that if "popular religious activities" are transformed into "political acts contrary to the revolution," the government would reserve the right to defend itself against such political attacks. Despite occasional errors and policy inconsistencies, the Sandinista revolution has tried during these last eight years to confront the complexity of Nicaraguan socio-religious phenomena within these basic guidelines.

The intra-ecclesiastical dynamic between the two models of church, the Sandinistas' handling of religious matters and the armed counterrevolution's decline since 1985 seem to have brought about a change in the Vatican's position towards Nicaragua. The policy of open confrontation, symbolized most clearly by the Pope's March 1983 trip to Managua, seems to have been replaced by one of dialogue. This policy began to show itself with the arrival of the new papal nuncio in July 1986 and the talks between the hierarchy and the government that began late in the year.


Official statement from the FSLN National Directorate concerning religion

(October 1980)
1. Christian revolutionaries have been part of revolutionary history and the Sandinista revolution for many years.

2. The profession of a religious faith is a people's inalienable right and is guaranteed by the revolutionary government.

3. The Sandinista experience demonstrates that it is possible to be a believer and a revolutionary at the same time, without any insurmountable contradiction between the two practices.

4. Membership in the Frente Sandinista is a right, regardless of a person's religious belief.

5. Religious proselytizing will not be allowed within the context of the party. Outside of this context, all have the right to free public expression of their faith without this lessening their Sandinista militancy.

6. There exists respect for the religious traditions and celebrations of the people. For this reason, the use of these traditions and celebrations for commercials or political ends shall be guarded against.

7. The interpretation of religious matters is the duty of the various churches.

8. The divisions within the Church have not been caused by the FSLN. The reasons must be sought among the Christian community and the history of the Church as a whole.

9. The participation in the conduct of public affairs is a right of all Nicaraguan citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs.

10. The revolutionary state is a lay institution which represents the whole people, believers and non-believers alike.


Although the dialogue itself may have very important results, the factors that influence strategic tendencies in the religious question and make the dialogue even possible are the vitality of the Church of the Poor, the Sandinistas' creative way of dealing with religious affairs and the decline of the counterrevolution.

The assured open space for religion in the revolution, now ratified in the Constitution (a feature "vital for the concept of political liberty," according to the Santa Fe Document), is part of the process of participatory and representative democracy guaranteed by the Nicaraguan revolution, thus strengthening real democracy as a whole. Every form of pluralism has its limits, however. In Nicaragua, these limits are determined by the aggression to which the country is subjected. Times of war are never the most favorable for the full development of democracy. Anthony Quainton, the former US ambassador to Nicaragua, said that "if participation is democracy, then there is a lot of democracy in Nicaragua," but from a grassroots perspective, participatory democracy has a long road ahead. Although the tasks of military defense have helped the political maturation of the population, they have also made it difficult to maintain the quality of grassroots participation in such important areas as labor unions, peasant cooperatives, etc., because of the drain on human resources. While the government has a tendency to use the war to justify its own errors, the war does necessarily force a greater centralization of decision making. In the end, participatory democracy can only open up in the measure that peace replaces war.

The same thing can be said for formal democracy. In spite of errors committed by the Sandinistas in this area, the fundamental reason why limits have been placed on the written and spoken media, the freedom of movement of certain political parties, the actions of certain members of the Church hierarchy and the like can be found in the logic of war.

Having said all this, it must also be said that the dynamic tendency of Nicaraguan revolutionary democracy, rather than a concession to national or international groups or a tactic, has been a necessary condition for the revolution's survival and growth. The mobilization of the urban population whether with arms or with the vote, the outreach to peasants, the incorporation of the ethnic populations and Christians into the revolution as sectors, have all been combined dialectically with the Sandinista army's increased strength. These overall advances are what have sealed the strategic decline of Reagan's contras in the three war zones of the Atlantic, the Pacific and the central area of Nicaragua.

The economic decline

Both sides have been weakened in many respects by this long and difficult struggle. Due to the revolution's entrenchment, the contras' lack of military results and the ticking away of time as Reagan's second term comes to an end, direct intervention would be more costly now for the Reagan administration than when the confrontation began. The Sandinistas, on the other hand, have felt victory's price in the economic realm.

The economic aspect of the US aggression has been conducted in the context of an international economic crisis which itself impinges upon the weak and underdeveloped material base inherited by the revolution. To a lesser extent, the Sandinistas' mistakes in directing the economy have added to the picture.

Extremely high inflation rates are included among the indicators of Nicaragua's economy crisis. In 1986, the inflation rate was 657%, compared to 220% in 1985 and 35% in 1984. (According to Nicaraguan government data, UN Economic Commission on Latin America statistics calculate the inflation rate at 777%. Both figures represent the consumer price index without including price subsidies. The inflation rate for production costs, a great part of which the state subsidizes, was 281%.)

Another sign of the economic crisis has been the instability in the labor force. For example, 7,689 of the country’s 12,896 industrial workers changed jobs before the end of the year. Also, exports amounted to only $218 million in 1986, as opposed to $294 million in 1985 and $385 million in 1984. Further, there has been a huge movement of the population to the economy's informal sector such that over 50% of the economically active population can be found in that sector. Finally, technicians and professionals have been leaving the country at an increasing rate. Without hard currency with which to import inputs for production and with difficulties stabilizing the labor force, the possibilities for an increased spiral of scarcity and inflation become greater.


Direct US economic aggression against Nicaragua
1. 1981: the United States suspends all bilateral aid.

2. 1981: US Import-Export Bank suspends all agreement guarantees to finance Nicaraguan exports.

3. 1981: US suspends PL-480 wheat donations.

4. 1982: Standard Fruit (which controlled 100% of Nicaragua's banana exports) cancels all Nicaraguan operations.

5. 1982: Nicaragua is excluded from the US “Caribbean Basin Initiative" program.

6. 1983: US reduces Nicaraguan sugar import quotas.

7. 1983-1986: US puts direct pressure on international lending agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank through vetoes and blackmail. The total cost to Nicaragua of lost loans through such pressure is estimated at $570 million.

8. 1985: US enacts a total commercial embargo of Nicaragua, based on the argument that it poses a direct threat to the US. The embargo includes the suspension of all trade, the cancellation of the Amnesty, Commerce and Navigation Treaty and the suspension of US airline service to Nicaragua.


The Sandinista revolution recognizes that it cannot hope to have a normal economic situation as long as the aggression lasts. The immediate goal is only to contain the general economic deterioration and try to attain relative improvements in certain areas of the economy. According to the government's economic planners, this goal can be realized through a more rational use of scarce resources, an increase in the levels of worker productivity by attaching material incentives to increased production rates and better organization of both production and services.

This approach to the economic crisis is not designed to change the basic structures of a mixed economy in which the private sector produces 57% of the gross domestic product—26% from large business capital and 31% from small businesses. The state generates the other 43% of the GDP—10% in general administration and 33% in the production of goods and services. If the revolution can effectively administer its own resources and take optimal advantage of international aid and solidarity, it hopes to contain the economic damage such that it can further the contras' overall decline. This is the present challenge.

Simply weakening the Sandinista government economically is not an end in itself for the Reagan administration. The economic assault is a means by which to achieve the Sandinista government's destabilization and eventual downfall.

The counterrevolution's military, political and ethnic organizations, however, have been incapable of taking skillful advantage of the economic difficulties for their own ends. Nicaraguans both complain about the economic situation constantly and blame the Sandinista government for it, criticizing it for not being sensitive to their needs and for its errors and corruption—although at times without discerning sufficiently between the results of poverty and culpable errors. Three state-run radio stations dedicate 15 hours a day to such critical public debate. Despite this, they are able to see the true causes of the crisis. Representative polling demonstrates that over 75% of the population believes that the economic crisis is caused by the war. In a culture where complaints are brought out into the open, this degree of political clarity has either been misinterpreted or deliberately ignored by Washington.

A whole series of improvements achieved by the urban and agrarian reforms have given the public a material pretext for supporting the revolution. For example, in urban areas, families who were looking for space to build their homes after the revolution squatted on large plots of lands. These initiatives were not planned by the government, yet the Sandinistas supported them by providing electricity, water and other infrastructure for the squatters. In later, proportionately fewer cases, material limitations made it impossible to provide such institutional supports, but the land takeovers were legally recognized.

If some people obtained new homes, others used the legal system, grown sluggish by Somoza's corruption, to become legal owners of their homes. In the period between 1979 and 1983, approximately a third of the urban population benefited from access to simple but decent housing. In the rural areas, 921,843 peasant families, or 51.6% of the rural population, received some 1.8 million hectares of land through the agrarian reform.

In the early years of the revolution, there were substantial improvements in education. The illiteracy rate fell from 50.3% to 12.9% of those over ten years of age, and educational services were greatly expanded, especially in the rural areas. In the area of health, endemic diseases like polio were eradicated. With the exception of the great strides in the agrarian reform, these advances occurred before the US aggression worsened in 1983 and 1984, but they are etched in people's mind. It is for this reason that the majority of Nicaraguans understand the war as a hard parentheses before the resurgence of advances occurs with the end of US aggression. Discontent due to the economic crisis has in no way been transformed into a political crisis, or even into serious destabilization. If the Sandinista revolution can at least control the damage, even if not improve the economic situation, Nicaragua will be able to resist a possible prolongation of the conflict for many years.

Latin and Central America face a test

The US-Nicaraguan confrontation inside Nicaragua has been accompanied by similar confrontation on an international plane. The Contadora initiative, begun in 1983 and supported since 1985 by the group of Lima, commonly called the Support Group, is the main international mediating body seeking a negotiated peaceful solution to the conflict. Contadora is possibly the most internationally supported negotiating experiment in history, with support from the United Nations, the nonaligned countries, Europe, the socialist countries, Latin America and, at least formally, the United States.

Contadora brings together a group of Latin American countries that are US friends and allies. At the same time they represent a renewed Latin American consciousness. This double characteristic of the group and the ideological diversity of the countries around the world that support its initiative have necessarily converted it into another battlefield in the confrontation between the Sandinista movement and Reagan's policies.

Mexico and Venezuela, supported by Colombia and Panama, are the main countries that initially made up the mediating group. Mexico played this role based on its traditional support for struggles for national self-determination and social justice, and Venezuela joined it based on its backing of the Christian Democratic political sectors involved in the Central American conflict. The Mexican government is opposed to US interventionism and to the East-West interpretation assigned to the conflict by Reagan. Venezuela is opposed to radical options for social change, but is opposed as well to US intervention.

Contadora was born as an instrument of basic consensus. Initially it limited its agenda to the conflict between the diverse Central American states, declaring any discussion about the role of the United States in the regional conflict to be beyond its purview. If this had not been the case at the beginning, the birth of a common diplomatic project would have been impossible. The United States would have made its weight even more strongly felt through the positions of the Central American governments allied to its policy. Through them it would have been able to pressure Nicaragua, without Nicaragua being able to counter.

Contadora has swung between Monroe Doctrine pressures and Bolivarian initiatives. In 1983, Contadora prepared a draft treaty demanding that Nicaragua dialogue with the counterrevolution. Later, in September 1984, it drew up the first version of the "Treaty for Peace and Cooperation in Central America," which Nicaragua accepted and the other Central American countries rejected. In September 1985, a second version of the treaty was proposed by Contadora, which neither Nicaragua nor the other countries accepted, although the others blamed Nicaragua for the intransigence. In the middle of strong pressures and after 30 months of the process, Contadora at that moment entered into its most serious crisis.

Until then, Contadora was a key element in hindering any possible US intervention in Nicaragua. At the same time, it could not resist the option, given this success, of the still-viable Washington alternative: the counterrevolutionary war. The Central American countries, also behind this option, have sought to use it to get Nicaragua to yield politically.

The Manzanillo dialogue between the United States and Nicaragua, started by Reagan for political reasons in view of the upcoming 1984 elections, provided a context that Contadora used to try to get a commitment from Washington to sign a protocol to the 1984 treaty. In this the US government would agree to act in keeping with the peace agreement to be signed by the Central Americans. After Reagan's reelection and Congress' approval of $27 million for the contras, the 1985 version of the treaty made no concrete demand on the US government.

Nicaragua felt called upon to reverse the Reagan offensive in the international sphere as it had already been doing domestically. By refusing to sign the 1985 draft treaty, Nicaragua forced Contadora to make a choice: either let itself become an instrument of unilateral pressure against Nicaragua or reassert itself with a new negotiating style. "Today more than ever before," challenged President Ortega, "the dream of Bolívar, Hidalgo, Martí and Sandino—of a Latin America united in defense of self-determination, independence and peace—demands a high sense of honor on the part of its leaders." Appealing to the spirit of Bolívar, President Ortega asked, "If the US is openly identified as the aggressor against Nicaragua, why does Latin America not dare call the United States by name and demand an end to its anti-Nicaraguan policy?"

At that time, despite the heavy toll taken by all the pressure on Contadora, there were material conditions for a new resurgence of a Latin Americanist consciousness due to the serious foreign debt problem and to the re-democratization process in the continent. With its focus on suppressing the demands of the Central American peoples, the Reagan administration was also showing itself unresponsive to important demands by Latin American governments. Social pressure had become acute in truly strategic countries like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Peru, heavily burdened by service payments on their huge debts, the high fluctuations of the interest rate and the world crisis. In many of those countries democratic governments have recently replaced military dictatorships and the economic crisis puts those new governments in jeopardy. That’s why countries like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela have called upon the US government to find ways of coming to some understanding about improving the economic situation.

But the Reagan administration has continued to turn a deaf ear to these demands, just as it has to people's demands in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America. In both cases the Reagan version of the Monroe Doctrine is the cause of the unresponsiveness. That tendency would clearly be strengthened if the Reagan administration were to win in Nicaragua, making the situation in Latin America even more difficult. Thus it is necessary to support the alternative of negotiations between Managua and Washington, which undoubtedly would have repercussions on the broader search for a new relationship between "the Americas."

Nicaragua's refusal to sign the 1985 treaty thus obliged Contadora to redefine itself. Since August 1985 the Support Group—Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay—have backed the four Contadora countries. Those eight governments now involved in the mediating efforts represent 90% of the Latin American population. The Lima Group gave new breath to Contadora, and January 1986 saw the signing of the "Caraballeda Message for Peace, Security and Democracy in Latin America."

The Caraballeda Message insists on the following: a Latin American solution to the conflicts, respect for the self-determination of peoples, support for democracy and for the demilitarization of Central America, and the need for all the countries of the American continent to support the peace process based on these principles. The Contadora and support countries were offering their good offices to "give impetus to the resumption of conversations between the US and Nicaraguan governments toward the goal of overcoming their differences and identifying possible areas of understanding." Caraballeda marks the end of one stage and the beginning of another in Contadora’s consciousness—with all its attendant tensions and partial failures. The second period, marked by the "Bolivarian" position, clearly replaced the first with its "Monroe Doctrine" orientation. By pushing Contadora to redefine itself, Nicaragua was trying to combine the international search for peace with the internal process of military and political decline of the contras.

After Caraballeda, Contadora and the Support Group began to find the courage to confront the Reagan administration diplomatically. At a meeting with US Secretary of State Shultz, these Latin American foreign ministers asked the United States to stop helping the contras, and a sector of the Democratic Party headed by Thomas O'Neill began to flirt with the Contadora option in order to have something to counter the Reagan option in Congress. But neither of these two moves got results. In June 1986 Contadora, in an effort to give some concessions to Nicaragua, gave the UN and the OAS a third version of the peace treaty, which incorporated the Caraballeda principles. That same month, however, Congress put more obstacles in Contadora’s path by approving $100 million for the contras.

Nevertheless, Contadora regained the initiative again in 1987 when, taking advantage of Reagan's relative weakness caused by the Iran/Contragate crisis, the mediating group decided to try again to move toward peace in the midst of the pressures. In April Contadora and the Lima Group came out in support of the Central American presidential summit to be held in Guatemala, considering it part of the negotiating process that had been moving ahead under their auspices. In addition, they are now having meetings to work out and implement a plan of economic support for Nicaragua.

Central America's unity cracks

While these eight years in Latin America saw a growing consciousness and a united Latin American effort to seek a peaceful solution to the Central American conflict, various events occurred in Central America itself—at a very different pace and for very different reasons—that tended to tie it into the negotiating proposals of Contadora and the Lima Group.

When Reagan first took office in 1981, his administration immediately began to regionalize the conflict, giving each Central American country a role to play within its general war strategy. Honduras was initially assigned the role of foot soldier and Costa Rica the job of carrying out political tasks as part of the effort to pressure Nicaragua. As time went on, the Reagan administration more and more broke the will of the Central American governments—a will that was not very strong to begin with, given the traditional dependence of these countries on US tutelage. Then came the injections of economic and military aid, political pressures, etc.

Central America, with the exception of Nicaragua, began to look in some ways like one bloc, with Guatemala moving out of the picture on some occasions for internal reasons. This bloc began to express itself in concrete ways, such as the efforts made in Costa Rica to create both the Forum for Peace and Democracy and the Central American Democratic Community. All these efforts showed Central America's weakness in the face of the growing Reagan offensive. The Central American countries also showed their docility as a bloc in pushing Reagan's positions in meetings with the Contadora Group. The clearest example was their pressure on Contadora to include in the treaty the idea of Nicaraguan government dialogue with the armed contras. They also exerted pressure on Contadora in the military area and in that of "democracy."

When Contadora successfully resisted those Central American pressures, the bloc tried to boycott the whole process. This maneuver, too, went along with the Reagan administration, which preferred to see Contadora die rather than come up with an arrangement it considered bad for its interests.

It was not until 1986 that a series of factors arose that brought about significant changes in the Central American positions. The main factor was the irreversible drubbing the contras were taking in Nicaragua, which created immediate problems in Nicaragua's neighboring countries, Honduras and Costa Rica. The retreating contras were causing more and more problems in the border zones, which had repercussions throughout Honduran and Costa Rican society. At the same time those two countries were beginning to be looked upon almost as pariahs for serving as a base of support for an internationally rejected guerrilla force. This became even clearer after the World Court verdict, when Nicaragua, in a kind of second round, accused Honduras and Costa Rica of supporting the US policy just condemned as illegal by the Court.

With the contras becoming less and less of a military option, the Central American governments began rejecting them as a viable way to defeat the Sandinistas. At the same time they saw that the alternative option—an eventual US military intervention—would have significant costs for all Central American countries. The desire for peace was the basic factor in Arias' victory over his rival, Calderón Fournier, in Costa Rica’s 1985 elections. For his part, President Vinicio Cerezo wanted to improve Guatemala’s tarnished international image left by previous military governments; the image of a Central American peace leader seemed useful. As for Honduras, it had already left behind the interventionist and ultra-militarist positions of General Gustavo Álvarez, replacing them with the less radical positions of other military leaders. Central America as a whole, its economy in tatters from the economic crisis and political tensions, could also see that a regional war would mean the definitive destruction of inter-regional economic links. All these elements combined to make the vision of a counterrevolution a highly unpleasant one.

A second factor was the Democrats' victory in the US elections in November 1986. The fact that they achieved a majority in the Senate and increased their majority in the House was the first major sign of the Republican administration’s political decline. All this was reinforced at the end of 1986 when the Contragate scandal broke, posing even greater problems for the Reagan administration.

With Reagan's position weakened domestically and the Democratic opposition strengthened, possibilities for a new US policy in the region opened up. One wing of the Democratic Party, headed by Christopher Dodd, began to put out feelers in this direction. Up to this point, one of the greatest weaknesses in the United States has been the lack of a Democratic alternative for Central America that would both safeguard legitimate US interests and promote coexistence with forms of government different from those traditionally supported by the United States.

The significant defeat of the counterrevolutionary forces, the Democrats' election victory in the States, the Iran/Contragate scandal and the fact that the Democratic Party, or at least a section of it, began to play out policy alternatives to Reagan's made the emergence of new positions in Central America possible following the elections that brought Arias and Cerezo to power. This was visible in the shifting positions of President Arias, who at first had expressed the same goals as Reagan, though preferring diplomatic and political pressure rather than military. Arias began to diverge even more by February; from being a mere variant on Reagan's plan, the second version of his peace plan became a variant—albeit a conservative one—on the Contadora plan.

President Cerezo supported Arias’ plan. The Guatemalan government had little to gain from a regional war in which the URNG guerrilla forces would certainly reemerge with greater strength and the country's economic crisis would deepen. This fact, joined with Cerezo's desire to be seen by the world as a leader of regional peace, allowed the interests of Cerezo and Arias to coincide. Both presented a new Central American alternative and broke—and this is key—the monolithic Central American position represented by the first stage.

Honduras, increasingly pressed by Hondurans’ protest against the presence of the contras in their territory, was nonetheless unable to achieve the minimal margin of autonomy necessary to allow it to support these changes.

With El Salvador's FMLN growing stronger and larger and adapting to its new tactics, which are difficult to defeat, President Duarte was also unable to achieve even a minimum of independence from the United States, which sustains the war his government is waging against the revolutionary guerrillas.

Costa Rica and Guatemala thus separated themselves from El Salvador and Honduras, weakening the possibility of an immediate regional resolution of the conflict contrary to Nicaragua's interests. The tendency for Central America to unite around Reagan is no longer in effect. In fact, Reagan's positions tend to be disadvantageous for Central America. Of five countries, only two support him unconditionally. Whatever the immediate future of the Arias plan, it represents the choice for a political solution, and in this coincides with Contadora. The whole process of adjustments and shifts basically indicates a weakening of Reagan's military option.

With nuances very different from those of the Contadora and Support countries, then, Central America is evolving toward new positions. If Reagan's Central America policy is further weakened in the United States due to the Iran/Contragate scandal, the possibilities for mediation by Contadora and the cracks that have opened in Central America to allow for support of the Contadora process will conversely tend to be strengthened.

If President Reagan is unable to overthrow the Nicaraguan government in the remaining months of his term, a new US government could undertake the revision of its policy toward Nicaragua. This could be done from either of two perspectives, depending on whether the government that succeeds Reagan's has a liberal orientation or a pragmatic conservative one. In either case, negotiations, as a mechanism for changing the irrational course that the Reagan administration has represented for the United States, could become the best route to a solution of the prolonged crisis in Central America.

Closer to peace

The general tendencies demonstrated by the Nicaraguan process after 3,000 days of revolution show similarities in the results of the unequal struggle sustained by Nicaragua both domestically and internationally. In both spheres the Reagan administration maintained the offensive during the first period, between 1981 and 1984. But since the end of 1984, and more clearly in 1985, those tendencies began to be reversed. By now, two of the three options for resolving the US-Nicaragua conflict have become very difficult to implement. Direct US military intervention in Nicaragua, prolonged guerrilla warfare, and negotiations that would respect the rights of Nicaragua as well as of the United States, each now have very differing degrees of viability and political rationality.

During the course of the 3,000 days, the option of direct military intervention has become increasingly costly and untenable. Nicaragua, with its Sandinista Popular Army and a population organized and armed for its self defense would be able to put not less than 200,000 men under arms to confront and resist in case of an intervention. Some highly-placed Sandinista leaders have even spoken of having the capacity to mobilize as many as 300,000.

This creates extraordinary difficulties for the United States, because after Nicaragua's first response, which would be in the form of conventional combat in the urban centers of the Pacific, the fundamental resistance would be irregular guerrilla warfare, which would extend to the mountains and plains of the countryside as well. All of Nicaragua would become one enormous battlefield. The opinion of US military experts, cited in the Kissinger report, is that the ratio of anti-guerrilla to guerrilla forces would have to be 10 to 1 to defeat any guerrilla force. That ratio could be lowered if the anti-guerrilla forces have a high degree of technology to replace personnel, which of course the United States has. On the other hand, the Nicaraguans would not be starting from scratch as a resistance force, as they did in the 1960s. The Sandinistas have surely been preparing for this long-term contingency during their years in power, just as they have prepared for defense of the country in the first stages of an invasion.

Even supposing a ratio of 8 to 1, and only 150,000 Nicaraguan guerrilla resistance fighters, the number of soldiers needed by the United States would be quite large. It is questionable whether the United States could provide such troop strength, given its multiple military commitments in many parts of the world and that those troops would get tied down for a long time in Nicaragua. Furthermore, such an extended commitment of troops to Nicaragua would raise the social and political cost of the war even more in the United States for any government that chose to invade, due to the constant return of soldiers who died in battle on Nicaraguan territory.

Nicaragua has the perfect mountains for extended guerrilla warfare, as Sandino demonstrated fifty years ago, and the Nicaraguans now know them well. Nicaragua also has an urban population that knows how take care of itself in battle situations, having experienced armed insurrection in September 1978 and in June and July 1979. Moreover, the combat readiness of these potential anti-invasion forces has only improved since 1982-83, including now the number of young men who, having completed their military service, have a military capacity and a spirit much beyond what they would have if they were just part of the general population. The United States must be well aware of the high military and political cost of a decision to invade.

To these already impressive factors we must add the likely regionalization of the conflict. In recent years the Salvadoran guerrillas have shown their capacity to strike effectively in both guerrilla warfare and in a war of movement. Their behavior, were there to be an invasion, would make it much more difficult for both the Duarte government and the US to contain the Salvadoran insurgency. This would imply an even greater commitment of US intervention troops and of high-quality firepower. Thus the political costs for the US government would increase even further.

Finally, Latin America would markedly cool its relations with the United States in the event of such an adventure, with unpredictable consequences for its re-democratization phase and for its grave foreign debt, much of which is with the United States. The Latin America of 1987 has a Bolivarian consciousness that it has never had before in its history, and its traditional level of submission to the United States is being transformed into a greater sense of dignity. The Contadora and Support Group governments would react, the people of Latin America would react, and the United States would reap a loss of international prestige incomparable to that accompanying any of its Latin American interventions in recent time. At a moment when Mikhail Gorbachev is projecting an image of great respect for the political life of the third world, such loss of US prestige would also have implications for East-West relations.

The second alternative is the prolongation of the conflict. After eight years of revolution this option is encountering serious difficulties in sustaining itself effectively. In the first place, the main vehicle for it is the contra forces. They, however, are on their way out, their combat capacity diminishing with the passage of time. To a certain degree, this decline has been produced by structural factors, based on the Sandinista revolution's success in regaining the confidence of the peasant base in the central zones and opening up a new future for the Atlantic Coast's ethnic groups. More and better military hardware will not reverse these political factors. In the final analysis, the possibility of advancement of any such irregular forces depends on the amount of support they have in the areas where they move. For this reason, the presence of the contras as a form of pressure on the Sandinista government, if that’s what the United States wants them for, becomes weaker all the time.

Likewise, the political counterrevolution—the CDN, the reactionary business interests, etc.—continues to lose space inside the country, which it tries to make up for in exile. The Sandinista government cannot be defeated from exile, however. A sufficiently consolidated anti-Sandinista front inside the country is a possibility that can be practically eliminated.

The role of certain members of the Catholic hierarchy in trying to make up for the limitations of the internal political forces has been neutralized as the process of change in Nicaragua continues. Today the Church of the Poor is much stronger than at the beginning of the revolution, and has been able to neutralize the counterrevolutionary message emanating from within the hierarchy.

In sum, the political forces, unable to organize themselves in 1983 or 1984, are having even more trouble organizing now. Time will only increase this difficulty, due to the internal erosion these forces are experiencing. As 3,000 days of Sandinista revolution here demonstrate, it becomes harder with each passing day to reverse the trend of the counterrevolution's decline in the military, political and religious arenas.

Looking beyond these serious problems for the United States on Nicaraguan soil, there would also have to be a substantial reversal of the present direction of Latin American politics and of the rather weak but nonetheless significant distancing of Central American countries from Reagan's militaristic policy. If the next US government, whether Republican or Democrat, wants to go forward with its irregular war, it will have to develop and implement an intense and costly diplomatic strategy for Latin and Central America, to say nothing of the European allies and socialist "enemies," and, of course, people within the United States itself.

Yet another problem for the US government will be having to deal with an FMLN that is becoming increasingly able to confront any offensive of the Salvadoran Army and its US advisers, and to conduct its own offensives, as the ever more frequent attacks on major military bases demonstrate. Following the current dynamics of the Salvadoran guerrilla forces, the prolongation of the Nicaraguan conflict would suggest the strengthening of the FMLN, which would cause serious problems for the United States two or three more years down the road. Rather than worsen the Nicaraguan situation, a prolongation of the conflict would worsen the Salvadoran one. And in addition to creating more tensions throughout Central America, it would not resolve the conflict for the United States.

To assume that the Sandinistas' plans to contain the economic deterioration will be a total flop, that their economic measures will fail and that they will not be able to wisely administer the solidarity support that continues to come from other peoples and countries is to assume a lot. Much more likely is that Nicaragua will be able to maintain the current political openings domestically—a reasonable expectation since the counterrevolution is less and less destabilizing—and thus continue to receive support from many capitalist countries. This support could even increase, and from the socialist side as well, if Nicaragua continues successfully resisting the United States. In order to make the prolongation of the conflict viable, the US government would have to achieve the absolute deterioration of the Nicaraguan economy. If this doesn’t happen, and everything seems to indicate that it won’t, US weight in the eventual negotiations will shrink in proportion to the prolongation of the conflict.

In light of all this, the most reasonable political solution to the conflict is the third option, a negotiated settlement. Its reasonableness should be as apparent to truly pragmatic conservatives, should they win the next US election, as to the liberals. Both pragmatic conservatives and liberals would have to recognize what has been apparent throughout the eight years of this process: that Nicaragua represents no security threat to the United States. The possibility of installing Soviet bases in the country has never been either proposed or desired by Nicaragua, and its commitment not to do so would be part of the negotiation with the United States. Nicaragua, in fact, has already accepted this point with no qualms within the Contadora negotiation process.

Nor does Nicaragua represent a military threat to its Central American neighbors. We have already analyzed why an army such as Nicaragua's, without its own oil sources, without its own military industry, without adequate logistical installations, could not sustain an invasion of any Central American country, much less of Harlingen, Texas.

After 3,000 days of revolution, the dangers that Reagan wants to see in Nicaragua have proven false. Nicaragua simply has no real offensive capacity, either against the United States or against neighboring countries. On the other hand, pragmatic US negotiators might be able to see Nicaragua as a model for social change benefiting the poor majorities with significant levels of representative and participatory democracy, so urgently needed in the third world. The electoral model initiated by the revolution—with the elections in 1984 and the Constitution in 1986—is being consolidated. An atmosphere of peace would consolidate it even more.

Nicaragua's only challenge to the United States, in fact, is that were its right to peace respected, it would achieve a far greater level of social justice for its people than the other governments of Central America. It is a perfectly legitimate challenge, one that does not subvert the international legal order or threaten the most profound interests of the United States. This simple challenge doesn’t oblige the United States to be an international criminal, as it has chosen to be by maintaining its policy of war in the region.

These 3,000 days of confrontation between the United States and Nicaragua have been judged by the World Court of The Hague, the highest legal body in the world. Its decision is that the United States is guilty of supporting an illegal and immoral policy. Right is on the side of Nicaragua, and during these eight years Nicaragua has defended this right. It hopes for a negotiated solution because it is the most just and rational solution. This is the challenge the new administration taking office in 1989 will have before it.

Until that moment arrives, 18 months from now, Nicaragua is determined to resist the Reagan administration. It will necessarily be very difficult and costly in human lives. Although Reagan won’t be able to reverse the course of the Sandinista revolution in those 18 months, he will keep trying, ruled as he is by his pathological obsession. Naturally, this irrationality leaves open the dramatic possibility of intervention. If this occurs, the weapons are ready; no one here will surrender. Nicaragua's government and its people hope, however, that reason and logic will prevail, opening the doors for negotiation and ushering in peace. After 3,000 days, we can say, with hope, that we are closer to that moment.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


The Arias Plan and the Tortuous Trip to the Summit

The First 3,000 Days: Revolution in Review
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development