Carlos M. Vilas (*)


A paper to be presented at the Workshop “Civil War and Cold War: 1975-1990. Comparative perspectives on Southern Africa, Central America, and Central Asia”. Columbia University, November 14-15, 2002.

Preliminary version for workshop discussion only



Late Cold War displayed the global setting for the Nicaraguan revolution and the subsequent Central American crisis, regional and domestic forces having to accommodate to it. While this is a traditional feature in Central American history, the Nicaraguan attempt at social change and an enhanced room for foreign relations faced additional obstacles as the USSR’s role in global affairs receded and the US reinforced its power hold in most of the developing world. The first section of this paper deals with the US long-term approach to revolutions in Latin America, which predates the Cold War, as well those of Western Europe and Latin American countries.  Section II discusses US reactions towards the Sandinista revolution and particularly to its relationship with Cuba and the Soviet bloc, as well the rebounds of the USSR’s withdrawal from Third World conflicts. Attention is given to the interplay between domestic and foreign factors with regard to each participant’s decision-making. The final section sums up the main conclusions of the preceding discussion.


I. US governments and Latin American revolutions

A revolution, most of all a social revolution, is a specific strategy for seizing political power and advancing social change, to which some actors resort when institutional channels are closed down. Revolutions then usually involve some kind of political violence, including armed struggle between formal (i.e. government) security and military forces, and informal ones (be they rural guerrillas,  worker or student militias, urban insurgencies, or any other). Consequently revolutionary efforts, as well counter-revolutionary ones, may involve some kind of civil war –as different or opposed to conventional, international war-, as both armed bodies belong to the same country and not to different ones. 1 Yet reducing revolutions to armed violence and civil wars would be misleading, risking to overlook the specific sociopolitical scope and content of the former. Civil wars have been waged for a broad variety of purposes not necessarily addressed at systemic change, which is on the contrary the case of revolutions. When they succeed, revolutions involve profound changes in class relations at both socioeconomic, political and institutional terrains, as well in the material and symbolic dimensions of individual and collective life –which is not necessarily the case of civil wars.

Not all 20 th century Latin American revolutions appealed to domestic or civil war. Certainly there was plenty of it in case of the peasant wars of the Mexican revolution, and guerrilla warfare in Cuba and Central America. On the contrary, the 1944 Guatemalan revolution, as well the 1952 Bolivian one were supported and pushed forward through huge and persistent mass mobilizations that eventually gathered support from the armed forces. In turn, the 1979 Grenada’s revolutionaries seized power through mass mobilizations supported by armed militias.


Latin American revolutions started as collective attempts to overthrow governments considered to be dictatorial, abusive, or in some other way illegitimate. Global capitalism and superpower’s foreign policies were crucial catalysts for revolutionary upheavals; dictatorial rule was confronted not just because of its oppressive character but also because of its actual or alleged subservience to alien powers. Nationalism and anti-imperialism were central ingredients of revolutionary ideologies, as reactions to what was considered to be an exploitative and oppressive submission to foreign rule. Cuba’s revolutionary watchword Patria o Muerte! or the Sandinista Patria Libre o Morir! bear witness to the presence of nationalism even in processes where Marxist theories were openly addressed as tools for socioeconomic and political restructuring. In  Guatemala US governments were perceived as one of the foundations of Jorge Ubico’s military dictatorship, just as external articulations were identified as central ingredients of la rosca oligarchic rule in Bolivia.


All over the 20 th century the US has been the hegemonic foreign power in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Due to this fact it is not infrequent to link Latin American revolutions and their anti-imperialist dimensions, as well US government reactions, to the East-West confrontation. US governments approached revolutionary struggles and regimes as dimensions of their own confrontations with third, non-Hemispheric parties, be they Germany or Great Britain during the Mexican revolution, or the USSR in post-Second World War revolutions. Policy actions with regard to these processes were extremely dependent on the US government perceptions of the challenges effectively or supposedly posed by revolutions to national security, perceptions which in turn were decisively influenced by the third parties’ policies towards revolutionary processes and regimes. The traditional support afforded by most US governments to oligarchic or dictatorial rule in Latin America well before the 1950s convinced US policy-makers that threats to their Latin American allies could only be the product of some kind of overseas intrusion in Washington´s national affairs. Against this backdrop, US reactions were also shaped by the particular traits of each revolutionary process, as well by the ability of specific actors to exert influence on Washington´s foreign policy-making –either US actors or those belonging to the country in revolution.


Yet, both 20 th Century Latin American revolutions, and US’ strategic approach to them, predate the Cold War, whereas during the Cold War the US displayed a variety of policies in their regard. As a matter of fact, Latin American revolutions developed in a wide range of regional and international settings, interacting in a number of ways with external actors and processes. Mexico´s revolution made its road in a time when the US was still building her hegemony in the Western Hemisphere; Guatemala’s and Bolivia’s revolutions belong to the beginning and early years of the Cold War, whereas the other three revolutions triumphed during the peak of the Cold War system in areas of uncontested US regional supremacy.


The Taft administration opposed the Mexican revolution to the point of supporting general Huerta’s military coup which overthrew President Francisco I. Madero’s constitutional government and eventually assassinated him. On the contrary, President Wilson  sympathized with the anti-Huerta opposition, his preferences going to Venustiano Carranza’s rather conservative fraction thus indirectly contributing to the military and subsequent political defeat of Villa’s and Zapata’s radical program. However, in the 1930s US governments could not withstand either oil nationalization or the deepening of agrarian reform; bilateral relations only improved well after the Second World War. Opposition to agrarian reform from Guatemala’s landed elites gathered crucial support from the Eisenhower government in 1954. Agrarian reform expropriated the United Fruit Company of about two-thirds of its land holdings; some of its transport subsidiaries were also affected by a number of governmental infrastructure development projects. 2 US and Guatemala´s upper classes fear of a Communist take-over of Jacobo Arbenz’s government were fueled up when  the small, recently founded Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo provided a number of professionals and technicians in the most conflictive areas of economic and labor reforms. After a partially successful attempt at condemning the revolutionary regime at the Organization of American States, the US resorted to funding and providing logistic support for a military invasion from Honduras.


US fierce clash with the Guatemalan revolution is in open contrast to its benevolence to the Bolivian one. Once in power the MNR (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario) implemented the largest agrarian reform program after the Mexican Revolution, which afforded the regime with an enduring active peasant support. 3 However some years later the MNR committed itself to attract foreign capital, protect private property and to put mine workers’ demands and mobilizations under tight state control –a turnaround prompted by the overall disarray of Bolivia’s economy as an initial  byproduct of structural change and political conflict. Policy shifts were supported by open-handed US official aid to social programs –including shipments of food which eased the transition from the hacienda system to the reformed one; in the early 1960s Bolivia became the largest single recipient of US foreign aid in Latin America. While sustaining both agrarian reform and state-ownership of mining, oil and gas production and refinery, Bolivia´s diplomacy actively joined the US side in the Cold War, which involved repression of the Communist Party as well of most of left-wing political, labor or social organizations.


Opposition to the Cuban revolution has been a reaction to the initial economic nationalizations and subsequent Cuba´s diplomatic, military and economic integration into the Soviet bloc –human rights and democratic concerns being late comers to the inventory of US complaints. Cuba’s socialist transition was a by-product of its increasing defensive articulation to the Soviet bloc –a dimension of Cold War power politics much more than an ingredient of the original revolutionary design. USSR support was vital to overcome US pressures. However, the dismembering of the USSR and the Soviet bloc in the 1990s have not improved the US chances to regain political control over the island. In turn, Havana’s economic and military support to both Grenada and Nicaragua was an additional argument for persistent US confrontation to all three revolutions. US opposition to Grenada climaxed in the 1983 invasion amidst the internal conflicts that cracked the New Jewell government. Nicaragua was able to withstand Ronald Reagan’s government manifold actions at the cost of increasing economic hardships, social drawbacks and militarization. Together, they paved the road to the 1990 electoral victory of an anti-Sandinista coalition enjoying the explicit sympathies of  the George Bush Sr. administration.  


US reaction to the Cuban revolution involved reinforcing and even establishing friendly political regimes –i.e. regimes joining Washington’s anti-Cuban policies-- in the Western Hemisphere, without too much concern for their commitment to democracy or their records with regard to human rights.  More frequently than not this meant supporting quite conservative and repressive governments, including military ones. As a matter of fact, renewed support to anti-Communist regimes could be understood as the updating of a long-term US policy towards Central America, its previous chapter been written in Guatemala with Washington’s contribution to the anti-Communist crusade that overthrew Jacobo Arbenz’s government in 1954.  In 1963 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated that domestic security was the fundamental task of Latin American army officers trained in the special military academies in the Panama Canal Zone and the United States –many of them eventually becoming government and army leaders in their own countries after graduation. The overall result was what Jonas (1991) branded as “counterinsurgency state” and Stanley (1996) “protection racket state”, with anti-communism as the ideological shortcut for the repression of any kind of democratic or progressive challenge to oligarchic rule. 4


Neighboring countries behaved as middlemen for US counter-revolutionary policies –such as Honduras with regard to the 1954 invasion of Guatemala; Nicaragua in the 1961 invasion of Cuba; Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica in US support for anti-Sandinista contras ; the Eastern Caribbean states in the immediate aftermath of Grenada’s invasion. On the contrary, Costa Rica and Panama were strategic rearguards for the Sandinista insurrection. Argentina’s Peronist government was openly supportive of both Guatemala´s revolution --which included arms shipments to the Arbenz regime— and the Bolivian one; MNR exiles moved and acted in Buenos Aires in the open sun, as in the late 1970s the Sandinistas did in San José, Panama City or Mexico City.  Several Latin American governments launched successful diplomatic initiatives addressed at a peaceful resolution of the Central American crisis which the Reagan administration  was unable to countervail. European and Latin American involvement was effective in reducing dependence on Soviet development aid in Nicaragua, as it has been to complement current economic restructuring in Cuba. In all, Latin American governments’ stances towards revolutions were as much an outcome of domestic power relations and political traditions as a product of their own insertion into specific regional or global environments.


Western European and Latin American and Caribbean countries played a variety of roles vis-á-vis revolutions and US policies towards them. While strategically siding with the US in the Cold War alignment, Western European countries pursued their own foreign policies in this particular respect. Most of them sympathized with the anti-dictatorial struggles waged in Central America from the 1960s on, providing the revolutionaries and subsequent governments with assistance ranging from full diplomatic and commercial relations to development aid and soft financial assistance. In the 1980s Western European countries were active sponsors of regional approaches to the Central American crisis, pushing for negotiation processes and peace talks. They also opposed US economic embargoes against Cuba and later on Nicaragua, and even reaped benefits from them as reciprocal trade relations increased at the same pace than those of the US-based firms receded. Their friendly relations with revolutionary regimes or organizations being conducted in a way to keep away from the most aggressive variants of Washington’s foreign policies, yet without challenging US hegemony in the region.  


II. Nicaragua and the Central American crisis

The FLSN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) triumphed over the US-backed Somoza dictatorship on July 1979 after near two decades of guerrilla warfare combined with massive urban insurrections and succesful diplomatic strategies.  Stressing the anti-dictatorial, democratic and nationalist dimensions of their revolutionary program enabled the Sandinistas to win over the support, or at least the sympathies, of fractions of the business elites. Nicaraguan capitalists ended up opposing Somoza’s rule because of its  overwhelming corruption, mishandling of foreign aid, tricky politickering and, finally, its direct responsibility in the assassination of the moderate oppositionist leader Pedro Joaquín Chamorro.  They were nonetheless concerned because of the radicalism of the FSLN program for social and economic restructuring, as well because of Cuba´s support to the revolution.  In turn this Sandinista-led national alliance enabled the promotion of   diplomatic initiatives towards several Latin American and Western European countries that proved succesful in order to block US initiatives to launch an OAS-backed “Peace force” invasion to Nicaragua. As in the Dominican Republic crisis in 1965, the OAS military presence under the leadership of US Marines, would have prevented a military defeat of a strategic ally for Washington’s anti Cuban policy, as well to force some kind of deal with the oppositionist business elites, thus breaking down the Sandinista national/democratic strategy. 5


At the very beginning the Sandinista government enjoyed some reluctant acceptance from President James Carter’s  Democratic administration. Carter’s government provided Nicaragua with aid for almost $ 100 million. It was intended to upgrade US profile in post-insurrection settings after the already mentioned failed attempts to prevent FSLN’s victory. While aid was oriented towards reconstruction and development, most of it was addressed at strengthening private business and the most moderate associates of Sandinismo. In Carter’s view, economic aid should provide Washington with some stake in the  subsequent evolution of Nicaraguan affairs. Carter’s basic concern was not to leave a free zone to Cuban or Soviet involvement. In a way, he envisioned the chances for a certain diplomatic competition between the US and the Soviet bloc. It was also in the US interest to prevent  Nicaraguan intervention in its neighbors’ domestic affairs, and economic aid was thought to be a good countervailing argument. However ideological and political affinities proved to be stronger, at least for a while. After the FSLN triumph,  Nicaragua became something like a heaven for the Salvadoran guerrillas, and allegations of active support from the Sandinista government poured over the US media, which were in turn reinforced by some Sandinista rhetoric. Despite of lack of enough evidence of actual intervention Carter ordered the suspension of aid. His decision was formally motivated by Nicaragua’s signature of a trade and cooperation treaty with the Soviet Union, as well by the Sandinista´s postponement of elections followed by the resignation of two moderate leaders from top positions in Nicaragua’s government. However US party politics also played a role in Carter’s decision, as the November 1980 presidential elections approached in a hostile domestic environment due to the government failures in the US embassy hostages affair  in Tehran as well in the Mariel’s Cuban refugees crisis.


Ronald Reagan’s policy approach stressed on the East-West confrontation,  revolutions being perceived as the evidence of the alleged USSR plot to strengthen its hold in the area. More nuanced analyses from other political actors –such as the Democratic Party and an increasing number of churches and human rights organizations, which put emphasis in non-ideological issues such as underdevelopment, poverty and social inequalities—were deprived of any meaningful policy consequences. All over its two-term administration Reagan was convinced that Sandinista Nicaragua was the beachhead of “the empire of evil” of Soviet and Cuban Communism in the Isthmus, with the subsequent threats it posed to US national security –Texas being closer to Managua than to Washington DC, as he stated in a public speech at the peak of Washington’s open support to counter-revolutionary armies. 6  In addition, this belief was nurtured by the complaints of members of the Nicaraguan business elites affected by the agrarian reform or other revolutionary policies. Particularly active in affording ideological arguments to the anti-Sandinista rhetoric was the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, which rapidly turned into the most important ally of the US counterrevolutionary strategy. School reform, literacy campaigns, youth organization, and most of all support to liberation theology and Christian comunidades de base were focused on by conservative bishops as threats to the traditional church authority and consequently as evidence of communist penetration. An interpretation that was rapidly shared and additionally fostered by Pope John Paul II, involved as he was in those days in a fierce ideological combat against the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.


Sandinista's closer relations with the Soviet bloc and most of all Cuba contributed to put leverage to this Cold War reading of the revolutionary regime, despite the obvious fact that Soviet involvement in the Nicaraguan revolution never reached the relevance it did in Cuba. 7 It was evident that for a number of reasons –which ranged from political pragmatism to transportation costs— it was not in Moscow´s intentions to challenge the traditional hegemony of the US over that part of the world. Yet, the arrival of Soviet and East Germany aid and advisors to Managua heavily contrasted with the previous absolute absence of any type of diplomatic, military or any other bonds to the Soviet bloc. By the same token the Cuban-Nicaraguan relationship (which included Cuban teachers, doctors and military advisors) was presented by most US government foreign policy-makers as an instrument of Soviet penetration (Vilas 1989a, 1991a).


From the very beginning of his administration President Reagan canceled the assistance to Nicaragua and pressured US firms to stop selling goods (both consumer goods and industrial spare parts, machinery and inputs) and buying staples (such as cotton, sugar, beef or coffee) from Nicaragua. In the same vein Nicaragua was excluded together with Cuba from the Caribbean Basin Initiative –a set of trade preferences afforded to friendly Caribbean and Central American countries which also embraced, geography notwithstanding, El Salvador. As a result Nicaraguan foreign trade (export + imports) with the US fell from 30 percent to 0, whereas trade with Western Europe more than doubled from 18 percent to almost 38 percent. Economic assistance from COMECON countries included preferential trade agreements, loans, cooperative projects, donations and enhanced commercial relations, which skyrocketed from 1 to 27%. 8


All over the decade the Sandinista government was able to keep loyal to the strategy of broad international coalitions that proved to be so conducive to the defeat of the Somoza dynasty. By the end of the 1980s foreign aid to Nicaragua from Western European and Latin American countries was almost three times higher than that arriving from the Soviet bloc. Assistance from Europe came from both  individual governments and the European Community, together with an array of social movements, labor unions, churches and NGOs engaged in an enthusiastic solidarity with the Sandinista regime. However as pressures from the US government reinforced after the November 1984 Nicaraguan general elections (presidential as well congressional), military and oil supplies from the Soviet area reached strategic relevance. The polls proved that in spite of increasing economic hardships and climbing counter-revolutionary warfare, the FSLN government was able to keep broad popular support. 9 From 1985 on counter-revolutionary military operations  mounted to new levels, southern Honduras and northern Costa Rica becoming launching platforms for US support. The Reagan administration put all its bets into so-called low intensity warfare: protracted military operations not comprising direct involvement of US troops, addressed at an increasing deterioration of the social bases of the revolutionary government through hardships inflicted to civilians. In addition Washington reinforced diplomatic pressures over both Mexico and Venezuela, which up to that moment had been providing oil to Nicaragua under preferential terms.


When the Reagan government launched an economic embargo against Nicaragua Western European allies of the US almost unanimously refused to cooperate with it. International opposition was reflected in 1984 in the UN World Court’s rule condemning the CIA mining of Nicaraguan ports early that year. In 1986 the World Court again found Reagan’s government support to the contras in violation to international law and ruled that the US should cease its assaults and pay reparations to Nicaragua for the loss of lives, property damage, and other costs of the contra war. 10 This notwithstanding in June 1986, Reagan got passed a bill providing the contras with $ 100 million: $70 million in military assistance and $30 in non-military aid. For lack of sufficient parliamentary backing, the government had been forced up to then to funnel financial assistance to the contras as undercover aid, including several millions coming from Colombian drug traffickers and illegal arms trade to Iran. 11

Cooperation from Cuba and the Soviet bloc -- both in military and economic terms-- became of strategic value in the new regional and international settings. Soviet assistance provided the Sandinista army with material supplies which made a major contribution to the military neutralization of the counter-revolutionary forces by mid 1988. When due to US pressures Mexico and Venezuela stopped supplying Nicaragua with oil, the USSR filled up the void. Up to 1988 the total amount of socialist (COMECON) economic cooperation was estimated in u$s 2 billion, or something less than 30 percent of all foreign cooperation arriving to Nicaragua during the 1980s (Vilas 1989a).  On diplomatic terms the USSR sat on the back seat of Sandinista foreign policy, taking advantage of Nicaragua’s changing voting record in multilateral organizations such as those of the UN system.


Things changed from 1988 on. Mounting economic difficulties of COMECON countries, together with on-going diplomatic negotiations between the USSR and the US with regard to nuclear weapons and disarmament reduced the flow of COMECON cooperation to Nicaragua, including military aid and oil supplies. By then, the US government realized that a military defeat of the Sandinistas was out of reach. However the impact of war sacrifices upon people’s enthusiasm towards Sandinismo convinced Washington that the time had come to adhere to the regional, negotiated solution that Western European and Latin American countries had been promoting for years. Reagan reluctantly joined the initiative, whereas insisting in the entry of the “contras” to the Nicaraguan political scene, together with an end to the military operations of the Salvadoran FMLN guerrillas. Coincidentally, Soviet diplomacy progressively joined in efforts for a peaceful dealing which would enable a discrete retreat from an apparent unending predicament.


Moscow’s gradual getting off was part and parcel of Mikhail Gorbachov’s strategy of step aside from Third World conflicts. It was a consequence of the renewed priority given to improve talks on nuclear weapons and other bi-lateral issues. During Ronald Reagan’s last year as US president an agreement was reached between conflicting actors in Afghanistan, with the USSR withdrawing its military forces in the following twelve months. USSR diplomacy was also able to convince Vietnam to move half of its troops (around 50,000 men) from Cambodia before that year’s end. A Soviet Union-US diplomatic joint effort drove the Angolan conflict to and end, including total retreat of Cuban troops. With its economy lagging well behind of that of the US it was evident to anyone that it would not be possible for the USSR to sustain even in the short run the mounting military spending it would need in order to neutralize the threats posed by the Strategic Defense Initiative launched by the Reagan administration, without risking a further deepening of domestic tensions stemming from downgrading living conditions and bureaucratic mismanagement. Ronald Reagan’s trip to Moscow a couple of months before leaving office was an additional evidence that the Cold War was ending.


Facing renewed pressures for a political settlement coming now not just from its Western European and Latin American friends but also from the USSR, and ruling over a war-torn country, the FSLN government had no option but to agree. 12  It was not an easy step, for a regional agreement such as that being sponsored by the Esquipulas process involved dealing with quite different national settings and questions as if they were one and the same thing. 13 On the one hand there was Nicaragua, with a revolutionary government subsequently legitimized by elections, facing a counter-revolutionary war openly supported by the US government. On the other, there were El Salvador and Guatemala, where revolutionary insurgencies had been waging a decade-and-a-half-long guerrilla fighting against government forces. The contrast between Nicaragua and El Salvador could not be sharper, as the Salvadoran ruling party, ARENA, made no secret of its far-right ideological preferences, including open support to paramilitary and right-wing death squads. Under the generic brand “civil wars” quite different situations were fused together as if they were one and the same thing. The regional approach was also supported by Moscow. On his October 1989 visit to Nicaragua the Soviet minister for foreign affairs stressed the USSR interest in carrying out a joint monitoring of the Central American crisis together with the United States.


Consequently, on 12 th December 1989 the Central American presidents signed down at the San Isidro Coronado (Costa Rica) VI  Presidential Summit an accord addressed at putting a definitive end to the regional conflict. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega joined his colleagues in backing Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani and condemning the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional) guerrillas and its November military offensive, as well any operation by “irregular forces” –an elliptical reference embracing the Salvadoran death squads and the Guatemalan guerrillas. In exchange the other Central American presidents backed Nicaragua’s demand that the contras complete their demobilization by February 5 th 1990 at the latest –when presidential and parliamentary elections were to be held in Nicaragua—and all contra bases in Honduran territory should be dismantled. 14 The demand met no response neither from the contras nor the US government; it was only after the FSLN’s electoral defeat that disarmament of the contras effectively started.


Repudiation of the FMLN linked Nicaragua with the most conservative approaches on the Salvadoran question. The FMLN rejected the document “in indignation”, while the Guatemalan URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca) evinced its “dissatisfaction, concern, and surprise” (Vilas 1991b). As for Nicaraguan domestic politics, large segments of public opinion and certainly most of FSLN’s rank-and-file were left disoriented by Ortega’s signature. Solidarity with Salvadoran revolutionaries had been a matter of principle all over the 1980s and a persistent ingredient of Nicaragua’s diplomacy as well one of the conflictive issues with the US government. 15


III. Concluding remarks

Late Cold War laid down the general setting for the development of the Nicaraguan revolution and its electoral defeat ten years afterwards. As the 1980s went on domestic factors such as FSLN’s government policies or people’s reactions to counter-revolutionary actions became imprisoned in the East-West dynamics. Not in the sense that domestic decisions were just feathers in the wind of the Cold War, but in that every domestic decision or ingredient was submitted by both superpowers to a Cold War reading.


The US perceptions on the Soviet and Cuban presence in Nicaragua varied sharply with government shift from Democratic Carter to Republican Reagan. Carter’s foreign policy commitments with human rights, democracy and development were abandoned during Reagan presidencies. Reagan conceived of confrontation to the Nicaraguan revolution and to the Cuban and Soviet involvement therein as a crusade, while Carter approached them as challenges to deal with on diplomatic ways. Where Carter was looking for a deal, the Reagan government was struggling for an overall victory.  In turn Reagan’s convictions were reinforced by his successful experience with Grenada in 1983 when US marines, taking advantage from internal divisions in the New Jewell government smashed the revolutionary experiment after a few skirmishes with loyal forces. While in the final months of his presidential term Carter did tighten US stance toward the Sandinista regime, it seems out of question that the Republican victory in the November 1980 elections involved a decisive shift in US-Nicaraguan relations –whereas Nicaragua was not a relevant issue in the electoral campaign.


Domestic issues also influenced USSR’s retreat from Central America. Soon after the beginning of his government Mikhail Gorbachov realized the magnitude of Soviet weaknesses with regard to the United States in every terrain of competition. Deployment of troops or active political involvement in Third World countries could not be sustained by an increasingly inefficient economic structure and bureaucratic administrative system. Moreover, nuclear arms control would hardly be achieved if Soviet diplomacy persisted in political or military involvement in areas of traditionally undisputed US hegemony –such as Central America. Neither political and economic domestic reforms, nor Gorbachov’s own permanence in power, could gather people’s support as long  as living conditions were not substantially improved --which in turn urged for severe reductions in military spending. To make things worst, military defeat in Afghanistan in the hands of the US-backed fundamentalists Islamic guerrillas added domestic tensions and conflicts inside the Communist Party which the Soviet regime would eventually prove unable to overcome.  Soviet retreat from Nicaragua was easier and made no significant impact on the Soviet public’s opinions, since involvement therein never reached the magnitudes registered in Central Asia.  


Yet, the definitive, final strike on the revolution came from the Nicaraguan people. In the February 1990 general elections the FSLN was defeated in a 6 to 4 ratio by a broad coalition of oppositionist parties running with the open sponsorship of the US government. While war and subsequent economic and social disarray heavily influenced the voter’s option, the way the FSLN government approached economic crisis and war efforts through specific policies and actions contributed no less to the electoral turnout. As I have discussed elsewhere (Vilas 1988, 1989b,1990) there was no trade-off between the severe hardships war imposed on the people, and government economic and social policies, particularly during the initial years of the counter-revolutionary military offensive. State-centered, export-biased agrarian policies oriented to earn much needed foreign currency stepped over deeply rooted peasant and small farmers expectations and demands. 16 The initial ignorance and subsequent mishandling of ethnic demands in the Atlantic Coast alienated indigenous populations. Strategies to broaden political alliances with the middle sectors and the bourgeoisie frequently discouraged mass mobilizations. In all, counter-revolutionary war was approached as an obstacle to further social transformation, and not as the setting where it had  to be pushed forward. The political content of the armed confrontation, which should have imprinted specific meaning to people’s involvement in it, gradually diluted in standard, institutional appeals.


Defense of the country, much more than defense of the revolution, was the Sandinista watchword as military operations went up –whereas for many either in or out FSLN’s ranks defending the country was needed because a social revolution was taking place. Thus at a certain point military defense became some kind of civic constitutional obligation and no longer a political commitment, as it appealed to and recruited the Nicaraguan youth at large --both FSLN’s rank and file and those politically neutral or even opposed the revolution. In that particular setting the oppositionist discourse emphasizing that war and scarcities were a consequence of Sandinistas’ errors, sectarianism, mismanagement or provocations and that no peace was going to be achieved as long as they remained in power, gathered predictable acceptance.


Almost twenty years ago Walter LaFeber argued that those of Central America were “inevitable revolutions” (LaFeber 1984). Was also inevitable the defeat of the Nicaraguan one? Did the Cold War doomed it to failure? Could things have been different in Central America, or in Nicaragua, even if the East-West confrontation evolved as it did?  Answering these questions is still a matter of dispute, involving as they do a broad scope of connected issues. Some of them have to do with  the more general features of international power relations, such as the permanent interplay between global and national layouts and processes; the need for substantial foreign assistance for revolutionary regimes to advance social transformation; the willingness of international would-be partners to supply assistance, and to what extent and under what conditions; power (in)balances between a superpower and a small, backward neighboring country looking for larger external autonomy. Other issues relate in a more direct manner to the specificities of the Sandinista revolution: the tensions between national appeals to broaden political alliances, and class biases inherent to economic and social change; the difficult trade-offs between ideological commitments and political maneuvering; the ability to combine democratic pluralism and strong political leadership in war-torn settings.


Despite the relative independence of the origins and initial development of the Sandinista revolution from the Cold War, the revolutionary government became increasingly entangled in a Cold War dynamics which eventually drove the experience to an end. This enclosure having to do with specific decisions made by the Sandinista regime as much as (and perhaps even more) with US perceptions of them and of their impact on the US power competition with the Soviet bloc.






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1990 “Nicaragua: What Went Wrong". NACLA Report on the Americas , vol. XXXIV (1), June:10-18.

1991a  “Imperfect Competition: The Superpowers in Latin America”. In  Beyond Superpower Rivalry. Latin America and the Third World . John E. Weeks, ed. New York: New York University Press:83-93.

1991b  “Nicaragua: A revolution that fell from the grace of the people”. Communist Regimes: The Aftermath. The Socialist Register.  Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch, eds. London: Merlin Press, 302-321.

1995 Between Earthquakes and Volcanoes. Market, State, and the Revolutions in Central America . New York: Monthly Review Press.

“Nicaraguan Revolution”.  The Encyclopedia of Political Revolutions , Jack A. Goldstone, ed. Washington D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc.:369-372.




(* Universidad Nacional de Lanús, Argentina. An Argentine political scientist, the author lived and worked in Central America from 1978 to 1990. From 1980 to 1988  he worked for several Sandinista government’s agencies.

1  To what extent or under what circumstances guerrillas can be equated to an army is a question open to discussion, which I will not deal with at this moment.

2   John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, key policy-makers of the Eisenhower administration,  were important UFCO’s stockholders, which increased the US political confrontation to the revolution.

3   Harris (1970) points to the impact of agrarian reform on the political isolation of Che Guevara’s guerrilla in Bolivia in the 1960s.

4  See also McClintock (1985); Vilas (1995).

5  See Vilas (1998) and, for a more detailed analysis of the final years of the Sandinista insurrection, Vilas (1986) 128ff.

6  See Holden & Zolov (2000:292 ff) for a survey of government and non-government documents on the US-Central American relationship in the 1980s.

7  Cuba’s support to Nicaraguan revolutionaries predates the founding of FSLN in 1963. It can be traced back to the early role played by the Somoza dictatorship as a tool for US anti-Cuban policy after 1959. The failed April 1961 CIA-sponsored invasion to Cuba departed from Puerto Cabezas, on the Eastern Coast of Nicaragua. It was openly  cheered by Anastasio Somoza in an informal ceremony of farewell, whence he asked the expeditionaries to bring him back as a souvenir “a piece of Fidel Castro´s beard”. On Cuba’s support to Central American revolutions in the 1960s and early 1970s see Moreno & Lardas (1979).

8  Trade with Japan tripled from 3 percent to 9 percent.

9  The FSLN obtained 62.9 percent of votes for president and vice-president, and 63.5 percent for members of the National Assembly (Parliament). Seventy five percent of the registered voters participated, which contrasts with 50 percent in the presidential elections in El Salvador (1984), 66 percent in presidential elections in Honduras (December 1981) or 70 percent in Costa Rica (February 1982).

10  US governments never accepted the Court’s rule; after her inauguration as Nicaragua’s president Mrs. Violeta Chamorro decided to relinquish from her country’s legal rights, thus driving the issue to an end and shielding the US from any subsequent demand.

11  See Arnson (1989) for an insightful analysis of the roles played by both Congress and the White House with regard to US funding of counter-revolutionary operations in Central America. On the role of drug-trafficking as a tool for funding the contras, see  Scott (1991) and Scott & Marshall (1991). Dickey (1985) and DeFronzo (1991:211 ff) conduct insightful analysis of the contras. For overall discussions on Reagan’s opposition to Nicaragua and Mexico’s involvement, see Bermudez (1987), Sklar (1988), Gordon (1993).

12  By 1989 15% of Nicaragua’s adult population was under arms; death toll amounted to 30,000 and one third of the countryside was directly involved in military operations. The economy was in total disarray, with production and domestic trade bottlenecks, food shortages and prices climbing towards hyperinflationary records (Taylor et al. 1989).

13  The “Esquipulas Process” refers to two meetings held by the presidents of Central America in the Guatemalan town of Esquipulas, on May 1986 (Esquipulas I) and August 1987 (Esquipulas II). Texts of the Esquipulas Accords in  

14  Text of the accord in

15   To make things worst for the Sandinistas’ international image, the accord was signed down just a few weeks after a Salvadoran military death squad massacred several Jesuit priests who were in the directive board of the Central American University together with two female employees.

16  See also Enriquez (1991, 1997); Baumeister (1998).

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