For two decades, the hemispheric policy of the United States has been haunted by the specter of "another Cuba." The fear that Cuba's revolutionary upheaval might be repeated elsewhere energized the Alliance for Progress and, when progress gave way to order, that same fear justified providing counterinsurgency assistance to a continent increasingly dominated by military dictatorships. Lyndon Johnson sent a force of 20,000 men to the Dominican Republic in 1965 to prevent "another Cuba," and Henry Kissinger unleashed the CIA on Chile for the same reason.

The collapse of the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua has made this fear more palpable than ever. The United States labored mightily over the past year to prevent the accession of a Sandinista government in Nicaragua, but in the end was reduced to reluctantly arranging the terms of transition from Somoza to a provisional government appointed by the guerrillas. Preoccupied with isolating the Sandinistas, Washington policymakers consistently under-estimated their strength and exaggerated that of Somoza. Now that he is gone, the Cuba specter still hovers, threatening to obscure U.S. understanding of the dynamics of post-Somoza politics just as it obscured the dynamics of his collapse.

Nicaragua's future course will be determined fundamentally by internal forces-how the revolutionary coalition breaks down into contending political camps, the relative strengths of those camps, and the issues around which the political battles of the future are fought. No external actor will be able to control this process, but the United States can have an impact on it by affecting the alignments of the political contenders and the issues which divide them. Whether Nicaragua becomes "another Cuba" will depend in no small measure on whether the United States reenacts the mistakes it made 20 years ago in its relations with the first Cuba.


Nicaragua, like Cuba, was victimized early in the century by the new "Manifest Destiny" which guided U.S. hemispheric policy during those years.1 It became a virtual protectorate of the United States in 1912 when the Marines were dispatched, ostensibly to protect American property and citizens during a period of civil strife. In fact, U.S. interest in Nicaragua was primarily strategic. Considered for a time as a possible site for the canal across the isthmus, Nicaragua's location remained strategically important for defense of the canal in Panama. U.S. control over the customs houses of Nicaragua was established less to insure the loans of U.S. bankers than those of Europeans, whose potential for intervention the United States perceived as a strategic threat.

Except for a brief interlude in 1925-26, U.S. troops remained in Nicaragua until 1933. The second occupation never quite succeeded in pacifying Nicaragua. Augusto César Sandino, a general of the Liberal Party, refused to accept the imposition of a Conservative president, and for nearly six years he fought a guerrilla war against the Marines, achieving international stature as a nationalist and anti-imperialist. When the United States withdrew under the banner of FDR's Good Neighborism, it left the task of ensuring stability to the American-trained National Guard under the command of Anastasio Somoza García. One of Somoza's first achievements was to lure the legendary Sandino to Managua on the pretext of arranging peace, only to have him assassinated. In 1936, Somoza forced the civilian president from office, arranged his own election, and thus began a family dynasty which ruled Nicaragua for 43 years.

The Somoza dynasty rested upon two pillars of support: the National Guard, transformed by patronage into a personalistic instrument of political repression, and the backing of the United States, ensured by the Somozas' anti-communism and their ability to maintain order. Though their reign did little to alleviate the tremendous poverty of one of the hemisphere's poorest countries, the Somozas proved adept at personal enrichment. At the end, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, son of the Guard's first commander, controlled an economic empire estimated to be worth nearly a billion dollars, including one-third of the nation's arable land and many of the major industries. So complete was his economic control that foreign investors avoided Nicaragua for want of any reasonable investment opportunities.

During the first three decades of the postwar period, opposition to the dynasty was weak and divided. The moderates in the traditional opposition parties were paralyzed by the Somozas' close ties with the United States, and by their own fear of the more radical opposition-a fear which lured them, time after time, into unequal "alliances" with the government. The radical opposition, on the other hand, was contained by ferocious repression. Thus the future of the dynasty seemed secure when, on December 23, 1972, the earth began to move, changing not only the physical geography of Nicaragua, but its political geography as well.


The political aftershocks of the earthquake that destroyed Managua fatally weakened the structure of Somoza's rule. Turning adversity to advantage, Somoza and his associates enriched themselves shamelessly with the international aid intended for earthquake victims. With Somoza in charge of reconstruction, the city of Managua was rebuilt on Somoza's land, by Somoza's construction companies, with international aid funneled through Somoza's banks.

The extent of corruption, together with the expansion of Somoza's economic empire into areas of economic activity previously reserved for other members of Nicaragua's bourgeoisie, alienated large sectors of both the middle and upper classes. Among Nicaragua's lower classes, the economic adversity caused by the earthquake stimulated more radical opposition, manifested in the wave of strikes, demonstrations and land seizures that swept the country in 1972-73.

The moderate opposition coalesced around the leadership of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, editor of the anti-Somoza daily La Prensa, and a social democrat who in 1974 organized seven opposition political parties and two labor confederations into the Union Democrática de Liberación. In the same month that Chamorro founded the UDEL, the nation's attention was fixed momentarily on a group which would eventually become the focal point of the more radical opposition-the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional.

Founded in 1962, the FSLN was one of the many guerrilla organizations spawned in Latin America by the example of the Cuban Revolution. It had scant success during its first decade, being routed by the National Guard in its only two serious military ventures. Though it gained strength in the rural north after the earthquake, in 1974 it still had fewer than one hundred members. Then, on December 27, 1974, 25 FSLN guerrillas invaded a Managua Christmas party, capturing 12 of Nicaragua's most prominent business and political leaders. The guerrillas exchanged their hostages for 14 political prisoners, one million dollars in ransom, and safe passage to Cuba. The boldness of the Christmas operation brought the FSLN national recognition, just as Fidel Castro's abortive 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks elevated him to national prominence in the struggle against Batista.

Somoza's embarrassment over the Christmas raid led him to embark upon a war of extermination against the FSLN. He declared a state of siege, created an elite counterinsurgency force within the National Guard, and obtained an 80 percent increase in U.S. military aid. The National Guard then proceeded to conduct a reign of terror in the northern departments of Zelaya, Matagalpa and Segovia, where the FSLN had been most active. For two years, peasants in those areas were subjected to a systematic campaign of torture and mass execution. To deprive the FSLN of support, 80 percent of the rural population was uprooted and herded into resettlement camps. The countryside then became a free-fire zone.

Such gross violations of human rights appalled Nicaragua's moderates and earned the Somoza government well-deserved international opprobrium. In January 1977, Nicaragua's Roman Catholic bishops joined in a pastoral letter accusing the National Guard of "humiliating and inhuman treatment ranging from torture and rape to summary execution." Reports by both Amnesty International and the U.S. Department of State confirmed the bishops' charges.

Thus, when the Carter Administration unveiled its new human rights policy in 1977, Nicaragua became one of its principal targets, constituting a near-perfect showcase for the policy. The FSLN, never a serious threat to the Somoza regime, had not been heard from since their Christmas operation. The absence of any apparent security problem in Nicaragua meant that U.S. policy there, unlike policy toward Iran or South Korea, could be safely guided by the moral imperative of human rights undiluted by national security concerns. Reductions in U.S. military assistance to Nicaragua on human rights grounds emboldened Somoza's moderate opponents, who had historically been immobilized by the unflagging U.S. support which the dynasty had enjoyed.

Then, in October 1977, the supposedly defunct FSLN launched a series of small-scale attacks on National Guard garrisons in five cities. Though the attackers were easily driven off, the assaults shattered the myth of Somoza's invulnerability and provided additional fuel to the burgeoning opposition's moderate and radical wings. Coincident with the attacks, 12 prominent Nicaraguan professionals exiled in Costa Rica (el Grupo de Los Doce) praised the Sandinistas' "political maturity," and asserted that the FSLN would have to play a role in any permanent solution to Nicaragua's problems.

The willingness of the more progressive moderate forces to open a dialogue with the FSLN was due both to their own exasperation over the ineffectiveness of electoral opposition, and to a significant shift in strategy by elements of the FSLN itself. Ideological differences over the proper strategy for defeating Somoza emerged within the FSLN in 1975, and after the FSLN's founder, Carlos Fonseca Amador, was killed in combat in November 1976, the Sandinistas split into three factions, or "tendencies." The traditional strategy of rural-based guerrilla warfare was upheld by the Prolonged People's War Tendency (Guerra Popular Prolongada-GPP), while the Proletarian Tendency (Tendencia Proletario-TP) advocated a shift to political work among the urban proletariat. Both groups agreed, however, that the time was not ripe for major military actions, and both rejected extensive cooperation with "bourgeois elements."

A third group, the Insurrectional Tendency (Tendencia Insurreccional, known popularly as the Terceristas), shared neither of these views. Believing that opposition to Somoza had become nearly universal, its leaders favored exemplary military action to spark popular insurrection. Most significantly, they also advocated the unity of all opposition forces, whatever their class character, around a program of social reform and democracy. It was the Tercerista faction which carried out the October 1977 attacks, and it was they who set about building links to the moderate opposition through Los Doce. Still, as 1978 began, the FSLN had neither the political nor the military strength to offer a serious challenge to the Somoza regime.

On January 10, 1978, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro was assassinated in Managua, and the nation erupted in a paroxysm of outrage and spontaneous violence. After two weeks of riots in Managua, Nicaragua's business leaders called a general strike with a single demand-Somoza's resignation. The two-week strike was 90 percent effective. Midway through it, the FSLN added its endorsement, and the Terceristas launched military attacks in several cities. But the political initiative clearly lay with the moderate opposition.

For the next six months the country was rocked by sporadic violence, most of it uncoordinated and organized by a widely disparate array of opposition groups. During these crucial months from March to August 1978, the political initiative slipped inexorably from the moderates to the FSLN. The Sandinistas spent those months gathering their forces, stockpiling arms and organizing the urban and rural poor. The moderates spent them waiting for the United States to push Somoza out of power. Unable to bring Somoza down by themselves and afraid of the Sandinistas' radicalism, the moderates expected the United States to act for them. They were encouraged in this belief by the Carter Administration's earlier condemnation of Somoza's human rights record, and by the shared interest in avoiding a Sandinista victory.

As civil violence became endemic, U.S. policy was caught in the pull of opposing imperatives. Should the United States stand by its advocacy of human rights and democratic reform in the face of Somoza's deteriorating political position? Or should human rights be subordinated to the political stability long provided by a brutal but reliable ally? Complicating this choice was the Carter Administration's self-imposed prohibition on interventionism in the Hemisphere and uncertainties as to whether Somoza could, in fact, restore order. To some extent, differing evaluations of the situation tended to be bureaucratically based. The ability of the Administration to devise a coherent policy was further diminished by the potent "Nicaragua lobby" in Congress, and its willingness to hold unrelated legislation hostage to the Administration's actions. This interplay of forces resulted in a policy which was more a product of bureaucratic compromise than of a clear assessment of U.S. interests. In fact, there was hardly a policy at all.

In April 1977, the United States restricted both military and economic aid to Somoza on human rights grounds; in September, the restrictions were relaxed. The government's harsh repression of the January 1978 riots sparked by Chamorro's assassination prompted the United States to impose new restrictions and to call for a "dialogue" between Somoza and the moderate opposition. Six months later, President Carter sent Somoza a letter congratulating him on his improved human rights record.

This last action in particular led much of the moderate opposition to conclude that their strategy of forcing Somoza's resignation with the help of U.S. pressure was untenable. Their only viable option, then, was to join in cooperation with more radical elements. The result was the creation of the Broad Opposition Front (Frente Amplio Opositor-FAO), the first coalition uniting the moderate and radical wings of the anti-Somoza opposition.

In August 1978, the FSLN seized the National Palace while the congress was in session, taking 1,500 hostages. The Sandinistas' audacity captured the popular imagination and with it the leadership of the anti-Somoza struggle. As the attackers and 59 newly freed political prisoners drove to the airport for a flight to Panama, thousands of Nicaraguans lined the streets to cheer them. The palace assault was followed swiftly by a new general strike, and in September the FSLN repeated its action of the previous October by attacking the National Guard in several cities. This time, however, the guerrilla actions sparked mass insurrections in Matagalpa, León, Estelí, Chinandega and Grenada. To "save" the cities from the rebels, the National Guard was forced to destroy them from the air. It took nearly three weeks and over 3,000 dead before the Guard prevailed. When the Sandinistas withdrew, taking thousands of new recruits with them, the Guard "mopped up" with hundreds of summary executions. After September 1978, no compromise that would retain Somoza in power was possible.

The spectacle of an army waging war against its own citizenry prompted a reevaluation of U.S. policy by convincing officials that Somoza would never be able to restore political stability. Moreover, the FSLN's unexpected strength and support raised the specter of an eventual Sandinista victory unless some sort of "political solution" could successfully replace Somoza with a moderate government. From the fall of 1978 onward, the single goal of U.S. policy was to prevent the succession of an FSLN-dominated government. Under OAS auspices, the United States organized a mediation effort aimed at creating an "interim government" composed of the FAO and Somoza's National Liberal Party; the National Guard would remain intact. The plan envisioned no role for the FSLN, and the guerrillas denounced it as Somocismo without Somoza.

Such a strategy might have had some chance of success in January 1978. By 1979, it was hopelessly unrealistic. The U.S. mediation effort destroyed what little remained of the moderates' political initiative. By pressuring the FAO to abandon its call for Somoza's immediate resignation and negotiate with the regime, the United States destroyed the moderates' unity and their credibility. When the mediation began, the FAO included 16 opposition groups; by the end, fewer than ten remained. As it became increasingly isolated, the FAO could only have recovered if Washington had made up its mind to force Somoza out of office. This it was not willing to do.

Somoza played the mediation masterfully. By stalling for time, he was able to rearm and reinforce the National Guard, demoralize and fragment the moderate opposition, and give the United States the impression that he was negotiating in good faith. When he rejected the final mediation proposal for an internationally supervised plebiscite in January 1979, his position appeared much improved. His gamble, in essence, was that if the United States faced a clear and unequivocal choice between Somoza and the Sandinistas, it would eventually come to his aid. He was only partially mistaken.

Despite U.S. threats that a collapse of the mediation would affect the "whole range" of its relations with Nicaragua, retaliation was largely symbolic. The four-man U.S. military mission was withdrawn, and the embassy staff was cut by half. The surprising mildness of these sanctions derived from a variety of factors. Washington intelligence analysts were predicting that Somoza's National Guard could, through sheer firepower, defeat any feasible FSLN offensive. Thus policymakers may have felt more secure sticking with an unpopular but powerful Somoza than ousting him in favor of the politically divided and isolated moderates. Somoza, at least, would prevent a Sandinista victory. At the same time, Representatives Charles Wilson (D-Tex.) and John Murphy (D-N.Y.) were threatening to torpedo the Panama Canal treaties' implementation legislation if the Administration moved openly against Somoza.

In June 1979, the three factions of the FSLN launched the "final offensive" against the Somoza dynasty. Within weeks, they controlled most of the nation's major cities, virtually all the countryside and half of Managua. The new offensive heightened U.S. fears of an FSLN victory and prompted a retreat from the "noninterventionist" low profile which characterized policy after the collapse of the mediation. Addressing the Organization of American States (OAS) on June 22, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance finally put the United States on record as favoring Somoza's resignation. The rest of his proposal, however, was largely oblivious to political realities in both Nicaragua and the OAS. Making no mention of the Provisional Government for National Reconstruction appointed only days earlier by the FSLN and National Patriotic Front (a more militant coalition group than the FAO), Vance called for a "broad-based representative government," and an OAS peacekeeping force to ensure a ceasefire. Though the peacekeeping force was roundly condemned, the final OAS resolution called for Somoza's departure and legitimated the next phase of U.S. involvement by calling on member states to "facilitate an enduring and peaceful solution" to the civil war.

With all of Nicaragua engulfed in battle and the FSLN forces gaining steadily, the United States began an attempt to construct a constitutionalist solution. Somoza would resign in favor of a constitutional successor who would then appoint a council of prominent independent Nicaraguans and turn power over to them. The council would mediate between Somoza's Liberal Party, the National Guard and the opposition to create an interim government composed of all these forces. That government, with the National Guard still intact, would then prepare elections in 1981.

The unreality of this convoluted scheme is truly astonishing. The only real difference between it and the U.S. position during the earlier mediation was a willingness to force Somoza's resignation. Had the United States been willing to demand that resignation nine months earlier, such a solution might have been feasible. By July, however, even the most conservative opposition groups had already endorsed the provisional government which the United States insisted on studiously ignoring. The constitutionalist plan collapsed when the United States found that none of Nicaragua's moderates would endorse or participate in it.

Finally, with the FSLN on the verge of a military victory, the United States abandoned its attempts to construct a government which would exclude any significant Sandinista participation. The accession of the FSLN-backed provisional government was accepted as inevitable, and the United States sought simply to negotiate the terms of transition in order to minimize FSLN influence. In this endeavor, it had two levers: Somoza would resign at U.S. direction, and the United States would provide massive economic aid to an acceptable government. In exchange, it wanted the addition of two more moderates to the provisional government's five-member junta, and a guarantee that neither Somoza's Liberal Party nor the National Guard would be dismantled.

Recognizing full well that the United States was negotiating with it only out of necessity following failure to undermine its support, the junta was not disposed to accede to these demands. Nor could it have done so politically. The provisional government derived its authority from the FSLN, which had appointed it and agreed to abide by its authority. Every important action taken by the junta was cleared in advance with FSLN field commanders. If the junta had shattered its own delicate political balance by adding moderates, or if it had agreed to retain the hated National Guard, it would have signed its own death warrant.

Thus despite pressure from the United States and several Latin American countries which had aided the anti-Somoza opposition, the junta would do no more than guarantee the lives of Somocistas and National Guardsmen, and leave open the possibility for "honest" members of the Guard to join the new national army. The battlefield situation, plus the moderation of the provisional government's program and cabinet, finally led the United States to accept the junta's terms.

On July 17, President Anatasio Somoza Debayle went into exile in Miami. With him went the entire senior command of the National Guard, as well as its morale. The Guard proceeded to disintegrate ignominiously, and within 24 hours had ceased to exist. Thus was realized the very eventuality which U.S. policy since January 1978 had sought to avoid-a complete Sandinista military victory.

How could U.S. policy have failed so dismally? Despite bureaucratic conflicts and congressional pressures, the failure cannot be attributed to the lack of a clear policy objective, at least not after Chamorro's assassination. Nor can the failure be fatalistically attributed to the internal dynamics of Nicaraguan politics. There was nothing inevitable about the final outcome in Nicaragua; indeed, when U.S. policy became fully geared to preventing an FSLN victory, the FSLN was by no means the dominant element in the anti-Somoza opposition.

As events unfolded in Nicaragua, the United States consistently tried to fit a square peg of policy into the round hole of reality. By failing to assess accurately the dynamics of Somoza's decline, the United States produced proposals which were invariably six months out of date. When the political initiative lay with the moderate opposition, the United States acted as if it still lay with Somoza. When the initiative shifted to the radicals, the United States acted as if it lay with the moderates. And when, at the last moment, the United States recognized that the radicals held the initiative, it seemed to think it could cajole them into returning it to the moderates.

Such misperception is not explicable merely in terms of an intelligence failure, any more than it was in Iran. The pace of events in Nicaragua was clear to anyone who wished to see it, and many did. A large part of the problem was the selective perception of policymakers who seemed to believe (or hope) that Somoza could restore order long after that became impossible, that the moderates were strong enough to form a post-Somoza regime excluding the radicals, and finally, that the radicals could be induced to surrender their leadership of the opposition on the very threshold of victory.

The source of these misperceptions was the fear of "another Cuba," and the questionable conviction that the radical opposition was intent on creating one. Now that Somoza has departed in "worst-case" fashion as far as U.S. policy was concerned, there is a great danger that policy toward the new regime will be plagued by assumptions and perceptions which are as unrealistic as those of the past two years. If this happens, the goal of preventing another Cuba will end up as did the goal of preventing an FSLN victory.


Both the composition and program of Nicaragua's Provisional Government of National Reconstruction reflect its intent to lead a multi-class cooperative effort to rebuild a nation devastated by war. The challenge it faces is formidable; the task of reconstruction is mammoth and the political forces the government seeks to unite are diverse and inherently conflictual. The anti-Somoza coalition which forms the basis of the new government was held together only by its opposition to the dictatorship. As the contending political groups marshal their forces and forge their alliances for future battles, the provisional government will become a focal point for the inevitable conflicts generated by the dual processes of economic recovery and political renovation.

The new government's executive is a five-member junta appointed on June 16, 1979 by the FSLN and the National Patriotic Front. With two radicals, two moderates and one left-wing social democrat, the junta is the delicately balanced result of intense negotiations within the anti-Somoza camp. It includes only one Sandinista, Daniel Ortega Saavedra, a veteran member of the FSLN and currently a Tercerista representative on the FSLN's National Directorate. The other radical, Moisés Hassan Morales, heads the United People's Movement (Movimiento Pueblo Unido-MPU), a grass-roots community organization of students, workers and urban poor. The junta's moderates are Violet a Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of the martyred editor, and Alfonso Robelo Callejas, former head of the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise, Nicaragua's largest umbrella organization for the business community. Sergio Ramírez Mercado, a socialist academic and member of Los Doce, has already emerged as the informal leader of the junta because of his pivotal position between the junta's Left and Right.

The 18-member cabinet appointed by the junta is more moderate in composition than the junta itself. Most of its members are well-known professionals and business leaders, many drawn from Los Doce. Legislative authority is vested in a 33-member council composed of representatives from all the political, social and civic groups which participated in the anti-Somoza struggle. The council's composition is as delicately balanced between moderates and radicals as is the junta's.

The political and socioeconomic programs adopted thus far by the provisional government, with their essentially social-democratic thrust, reflect a political compromise between radical and conservative forces rather than a consensus for social democracy. Thus, the government's reconstruction program offers both a guarantee of private property and a promise of profound revolutionary social transformations, while remaining purposely vague on the limits of each.

The specific policies outlined are strongly developmentalist and redistributive. If the government is to meet its developmental goals (especially in the reconstruction period) while preserving the private sector, it must retain the cooperation of Nicaragua's bourgeoisie. Yet the government's redistributive goals will require a substantial shift of national income from the upper to the lower classes and significant state regulation of the private sector. As to how these two sets of goals are to be reconciled, the program of the provisional government is silent.

This is where the major political struggles of Nicaragua's future lie. As rebuilding commences, the provisional government must eventually confront the central issue of the Nicaraguan revolution: What is to be the pace and depth of social transformation? The way in which various political and social forces define their positions on this issue and vie with one another for control over the revolutionary process will define the political battles of the months to come. Before we turn to the specific issues around which these battles are likely to be fought, we must first survey the strengths and weaknesses of the contenders.


Throughout the insurrection, U.S. policymakers habitually referred to the nonsocialist opposition as "the moderates." Yet those so labeled actually span the political spectrum from unabashedly reactionary to left-wing social democratic. The most conservative elements remained in the Broad Opposition Front until the end; the more progressive deserted the FAO for the rival National Patriotic Front, formed after the collapse of the first mediation.

Because the moderates are so diverse ideologically, they are unlikely to constitute a cohesive political force. Now that Somoza has departed, the two major coalition organizations will probably dissolve, leaving the moderates fragmented in a welter of civic and business groups. Debilitated by years of Somocismo, it is doubtful that any of the old political parties survived the civil war as functioning organizations. Thus, the moderates' greatest political weakness in the post-Somoza period will be precisely what it was during the insurrection: the absence of any effective political organization or mass base of support. New moderate political parties may form, but they are likely to be as numerous as the ideologies to which the moderates subscribe.

The moderates are not without significant political resources, however. The upper class controls a substantial portion of the means of production and the middle class possesses important technical skills. The new government will need their cooperation in rebuilding the war-torn economy, and that fact will give them considerable influence over economic policy.

The other advantage enjoyed by the moderates is the support of the United States and the many Latin American governments which aided the anti-Somoza struggle. Nicaragua will need an estimated four billion dollars to recover from the devastation of the civil war, and these countries have pledged to provide substantial assistance. The United States, for one, has made its aid contingent upon the moderation of the new regime. Of course, having the backing of the United States is a Janus-faced asset for Nicaragua's moderates. If the United States should offend Nicaragua's heightened sense of national pride by demanding explicit policy concessions in return for aid, association with the United States could become as great an albatross for Nicaragua's moderates as it did for Cuba's 20 years ago.

Nicaragua's radicals are as diverse ideologically as its moderates, though they are better organized. United in their desire to see a socialist transformation of Nicaraguan society, the radicals differ on how to accomplish this, how rapidly to attempt it, and what sort of political system ought to result from it. The immediate goal of the FSLN, which is, of course, the preeminent group on the Left, is to maintain sufficient unity among its three existing factions to ensure an eventual transition to socialism. This will be no easy matter, for despite its March 1979 unity pact, the FSLN's internal differences remain sharp.

As the most moderate FSLN tendency, the Terceristas will probably advocate continuing their earlier strategy of cooperating with nonsocialist elements; just as unity was necessary to depose Somoza, so, too, will it be necessary to rebuild the country. Of all the FSLN factions the Terceristas are most likely to uphold the moderate program of the provisional government, endorse gradual change and pursue an electoral road to socialism. A number of the leaders of this faction (including the legendary "Comandante Cero," Eden Pastora) are non-Marxist social democrats and radical Christians committed to pluralist democracy. Because the Terceristas were responsible for the FSLN's more audacious actions (e.g., the Christmas operation and the seizure of the National Palace), they are the largest and best known of the three tendencies. Yet their very heterogeneity could prove to be a liability.

The Prolonged People's War Tendency (GPP) and the Proletarian Tendency (TP) have undergone less ideological dilution. Both are avowedly Marxist and more likely to advocate an early transformation of the national revolution into a socialist one. The GPP, the larger of the two, has concentrated its political work among peasants in the north, and retains its commitment to the guerrilla army as a politico-military vanguard; the TP has focused on organizing the urban proletariat, and advocates the creation of a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. The war brought thousands of new recruits to both factions, but their leaders can hardly be certain of the ideological commitment of this augmented rank and file. Both factions will use the immediate future to consolidate. For the moment, however, all three are committed to supporting the program of the provisional government and strengthening the unity of the FSLN.

Despite its internal divisions, the political advantages enjoyed by the FSLN are enormous: a near monopoly of arms, organization, administrative control and popular legitimacy. The disintegration and defeat of the National Guard leaves the FSLN as the only effective military force in Nicaragua, and it will soon become the new national army. The FSLN is also the best organized political group in the nation, perhaps the only one with the capacity to mobilize mass popular support. Certainly it is presently the only one capable of administering the country.

Somoza's grip on the government was maintained primarily with patronage, and what remains of the administrative bureaucracy will be trusted by neither the provisional government nor the FSLN. Yet the first order of business for the new regime must be the restoration of order and the distribution of essential goods and services. The military structure of the FSLN appears to be the only apparatus available to take on these administrative tasks. Moreover, the FSLN has had three months of experience administering a liberated León. If it does become the de facto administrative apparatus of the provisional government, the junta will necessarily have to coordinate all its policy decisions with it.

But the FSLN's most important political advantage is the least tangible one: the legitimacy of the revolutionary regime rests with the FSLN because the Sandinistas made the revolution. The provisional government recognizes this full well. During the last days of the civil war, it made no important decision without first gaining approval by radio from FSLN commanders in the field. The prologue to the government's initial program is careful to note that it was approved by the FSLN. FSLN commanders such as Ortega, Pastora, Tomás Borge and Jaime Wheelock are already better known than any member of the provisional government. When teenagers in Nicaragua's cities held off the National Guard with hunting rifles, they called themselves Sandinistas, and when victory was won, the cheers and banners which filled Managua were the slogans and emblems of the FSLN.

Despite its divisions, the FSLN's virtual monopoly of so many essential political resources means that it will be decisive in resolving any serious political conflict. No conceivable coalition of other forces can outweigh it. Thus the basic dynamic of Nicaraguan politics in the near future will most probably be centered within the FSLN, in the debates among its three factions. The fortunes of the various moderate groups will depend largely on how their actions influence those debates-either reinforcing the Terceristas' arguments for gradualism or undermining them.


The pressure on the provisional government to pursue a radically redistributive policy will be enormous. Apart from the radicalism of the FSLN, it must also contend with a politically mobilized and increasingly organized lower class whose grievances against Somoza were as much socioeconomic as political. Though first priority must go to the immediate problems of feeding and housing 500,000 refugees and reactivating the economy, Nicaragua's workers and peasants are not likely to tolerate having their economic demands deferred for very long. The government's calls for self-sacrifice will be heeded only if the populace perceives the sacrifice as egalitarian, and even that will require redistributive policies that may stir upper-class resistance. Given the promises of employment, housing, health and education contained in the government's program, the government appears to realize that it could not survive for long by presiding over a return to the socioeconomic status quo. Nor is there any indication it would wish to do so.

We can predict with some confidence, then, that the policies of the provisional government will tend to favor Nicaragua's workers and peasants. Some of the moderates, no doubt, will accept that as unavoidable, absorbing the cost as the inevitable price for preserving the private sector. More conservative elements, however, are likely to see the class character of the government's policy as the first steps toward outright socialism. They would resist such policies, either individually or collectively, with the only weapon at hand-their control over the means of production. Some such resistance is almost inevitable.

The provisional government's response will depend upon the extent of the resistance. If it is restricted to a narrow sector of the bourgeoisie, it may pose no serious economic threat to the plans for reconstruction. At some threshold, however, the provisional government would be faced with very difficult choices. If it were to ease the pace of social reform in an attempt to restore business confidence, it might alienate the FSLN, forfeit its popular support, and thereby bring about its own demise. Yet the only alternative would be to neutralize the resistance of the upper class by depriving it of its control over the means of production-i.e., by suddenly initiating a rapid transition to socialism. The attendant economic dislocations would be considerable, but the broad state sector which already exists (administering Somoza's former holdings) would make this solution a feasible one.

Whatever the response of the provisional government, any significant upper-class resistance to the government's redistributive policies is likely to provoke a sharp radicalization of the revolution. A substantial redistribution of income is the minimum program for even the Terceristas, and resistance by the upper class will tend to reunify the FSLN around a more radical strategy. If the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie forces the FSLN to choose between its promise to respect private property and its commitment to social transformation, they will quickly become a class without a country.

The provisional government has one strategy it can pursue to minimize the sort of class conflict outlined above: it can use the proceeds of the "national patrimony" (the economic empire of Somoza and his cronies) to finance its social policies, thus satisfying lower-class demands without endangering incentives for upper-class investment. The upper class would still have to bear heavy state regulation, but would probably perceive that as more tolerable than provoking a political crisis. There are already indications that the provisional government intends to pursue such a course; if it does so with any success, the Nicaraguan political equation will become a good deal more complex.

Given a consistent policy of social reform, the Terceristas will almost certainly hold to their current strategy of gradualism and multi-class cooperation. As long as that strategy is fruitful, the GPP and TP will probably mute their demands for more radical policies in order to preserve the unity of the FSLN, and because all three factions recognize the need for the private sector's cooperation in the task of reconstruction. This would not resolve the differences between radicals and moderates, but those differences would tend to be manifested over political issues rather than economic ones.

Unlike its economic program, the junta's plan for political reconstruction is unambiguous. It promises a series of elections over the next few years to choose municipal governments, a national legislature and finally a president. The program guarantees freedom of the press, speech and association, including the right to organize political parties irrespective of ideology. Two political issues are likely to emerge: (1) What should be the timing of the elections, and what impact will they have on the "momentum" of the revolutionary process? and (2) What will be the role of the FSLN?

The FSLN's current strategy is to press for a gradual broadening of redistributive policies and an eventual transition to socialism. The political strategy of the moderates will be to contain this process. One way to contain it would be to call for elections as early as possible, using the electoral interlude to regroup politically, divert and diffuse the radicalism of the masses, and possibly regain the political initiative from the FSLN. The FSLN's reaction to such a gambit is uncertain: the more moderate Terceristas would be most likely to accept the electoral challenge, but the GPP and TP could well advocate cancelling the elections altogether.

Assuming elections do get under way, how will the FSLN, a politico-military organization originally created to wage revolutionary war and establish a revolutionary regime, fit into an electoral democracy? As it becomes the new national army, how can its military role be reconciled with its role as one political party contending among many? If elections produce a particularly unrevolutionary government, from whom will the FSLN-qua-army take its orders, the government or the FSLN's National Directorate? It is hard to imagine that Nicaragua's moderates will ever reconcile themselves to perpetual radical control over the armed forces. At some point, they will surely demand the depoliticization of the military. Yet it is even harder to imagine that the FSLN would acquiesce to that.

Despite many uncertainties as to the precise course of future events in Nicaragua, only two outcomes are at all likely. If the provisional government can successfully retain the support and cooperation of both the moderates and the Terceristas, the currently unstable social-democratic equilibrium can be consolidated. Nicaragua would then emerge with an electoral democracy, and the issue of whether radical redistribution gives way to gradual socialist transformation could be settled at the ballot box.

If the provisional government loses the support of either the moderates or the FSLN, the ensuing political conflict will move the revolution sharply to the left. In a "no-holds-barred" struggle with the radicals, the moderates simply do not have the political resources to prevail. The outcome would be a socialist transformation which would be neither gradual nor peaceful.


Our ability to shape the course of Nicaragua's political future in ways congenial to U.S. preferences is severely limited, both by the suspicion accruing from four decades of U.S. support for Somoza, and by the nationalist dimension of Nicaragua's revolution. However, our ability to aggravate Nicaragua's political conflicts and demolish bilateral relations by a poorly conceived policy is virtually unlimited. There is a danger that the wishful thinking and selective perception which plagued U.S. policy during the insurrection will now be transformed into a "worst-case" mentality which sees in every progressive measure adopted by the provisional government evidence of "another Cuba."

In this regard, there are striking parallels between the current situation in Nicaragua and the situation in Cuba 20 years ago. In both countries, nationalism long frustrated by a history of U.S. political and economic hegemony burst forth in revolution, deposing a military dictator notable only for his brutality, corruption and friendship with the United States. Internal support for both revolutions transcended the boundaries of class and ideology, yet both triumphed by the military might of the opposition's more radical elements. Cuba's Provisional Revolutionary Government was no less moderate in its initial composition than Nicaragua's new government, and its policies were no more radical. Almost as soon as it came to power, Cuba's anti-Batista coalition began to disintegrate over the issue of how deep and extensive social reform ought to be. Buoyed by U.S. hostility to every reform measure, Cuba's moderates were intransigent in the belief that the United States would never allow their political defeat.

The irreducible truth of Cuba's revolution, however, was that it abolished the ability of the United States to dictate Cuban reality. A policy of hostility toward the revolutionary government effectively disarmed and isolated Cuba's political moderates, and their resistance to social reform produced social revolution. More significantly, U.S. economic sanctions and military threats forced Cuban socialism, on pain of extinction, to align itself with the Soviet Union.

The deterioration of U.S.-Cuban relations was rooted in the U.S. response to both peripheral and fundamental issues.2 The peripheral or "indicator" issues were events that U.S. policymakers interpreted (often mistakenly) as indicating that the Cuban government was irredeemably radical and anti-American. The trial and execution of several hundred Batistiano police and military officials was the first event of this sort. The second was Cuba's determination to broaden its diplomatic and trade relations to include socialist countries. Neither of these policies posed any real threat to U.S. interests, yet the United States reacted acrimoniously to both.

The fundamental issue which generated U.S.-Cuban hostility was the unwillingness of the United States to accept with equanimity the redistributive social reforms adopted by the revolutionary government. To be sure, such reforms damaged the interests of U.S. investors in Cuba, but they did not damage the national interest. The only serious threat to U.S. national interests came when Cuba sought the protection of the U.S.S.R. in the form of intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

A reenactment of the mistakes made by the United States in its relations with Cuba could easily lead to a similar disintegration of relations with Nicaragua. In the immediate future, bilateral relations will revolve around six issues: (1) the trial of Somocista officials; (2) Nicaragua's establishment of relations with the socialist bloc; (3) the extent of Cuban aid to Nicaragua; (4) the U.S. reaction to the pace of Nicaraguan social change; (5) the conditions imposed by the United States on its reconstruction aid; and (6) Nicaragua's policy toward guerrilla movements in Honduras and El Salvador.

The first three of these issues are peripheral; none of them will give any valid indication of Nicaragua's future course, and none should be allowed to damage U.S.-Nicaraguan relations. Given the ferocity and brutality with which the National Guard waged war, the trial of certain officials as war criminals is not unreasonable. Indeed, it may be the only way to avoid a wave of personal vendettas. If the trials exhibit an honest effort to ascertain the facts, and if the punishments fit the crimes, the United States should not view the trials as human rights violations. Similarly, the establishment of normal diplomatic and trade relations between Nicaragua and the socialist countries should not be interpreted as hostile or detrimental to U.S. interests. It is simply the natural policy for a nonaligned country.

Nicaragua's relations with Cuba, however, may prove to be a more volatile issue. Cuba has already agreed to provide the new Nicaraguan government with substantial aid, including not only supplies but medical and educational personnel as well. The herculean task of reconstruction makes the provisional government hard-pressed to reject help from any quarter. Nicaragua's acceptance of Cuban aid may prompt vociferous denunciations from Somoza's supporters in Congress, but U.S. policymakers would be well advised to pay less heed to such voices than was paid to them during the insurrection. Cuba's assistance to the new government will be no more decisive for Nicaragua's future than Cuba's modest aid to the rebels was decisive in the victory of the revolution.

The fundamental issue for future U.S. relations with Nicaragua will be precisely the same as it was for relations with Cuba: How will the United States react to fundamental social change? At the outset, the United States should recognize that there will inevitably be such changes and they will be, at a minimum, radically redistributive. Such reforms will not necessarily be the precursors of a socialist transformation, and it would be a mistake for the United States to oppose them as such. Indeed, whether redistribution gives way to elimination of the private sector will depend in part on how the United States responds. A policy which is tolerant, even supportive, of social change would be in the best interests not only of the Nicaraguan people but of the United States as well.

If, despite U.S. urgings, the Nicaraguan revolution becomes a socialist revolution, the precepts of nonintervention and tolerance of ideological pluralism will face their most stringent tests since the 1970 election of the late Chilean President Salvador Allende. A reflexive policy of hostility might be domestically popular and viscerally satisfying, but it would probably have as little effect as the sanctions directed against Cuba in the 1960s. Moreover, a close examination of U.S. interests suggests that a policy of staunch hostility would be counterproductive. Even if Nicaragua adopts a socialist model of development, i.e., becomes "another Cuba" domestically, it does not follow inexorably that it would become "another Cuba" in its foreign alignments. Given the paucity of Nicaragua's natural resources and of U.S. investments there, the principal threat to U.S. interests is not socialism in Nicaragua, but a Nicaragua closely aligned with the Soviet Union. Coexistence with a socialist Nicaragua might not be pleasant for the United States, but it would be a good deal less damaging than driving Nicaragua into the Soviet camp.

As Nicaragua's revolutionary process unfolds, there will be a great temptation for the United States to use its reconstruction assistance as leverage to ensure moderation. There is also grave danger in this. Since it will be politically impossible for the provisional government not to pursue a vigorous program of social reform, U.S. pressure to the contrary can only inflame Nicaraguan nationalism without slowing the pace of change. Indeed, it would make more fundamental change all the more likely. A threatened withdrawal of U.S. aid is not even apt to deter a socialist transformation if Nicaragua's internal politics become so polarized that the FSLN adopts that course. In such a situation, any U.S. Administration would face tremendous domestic political pressure to retaliate with a cutoff of aid. A thoroughly radicalized Nicaraguan government would then have little choice but to turn to the socialist camp for economic assistance.

To avoid the pitfalls inherent in any attempt to use reconstruction assistance as an economic bludgeon, U.S. policymakers should remove the temptation altogether by establishing, in cooperation with other donors, a multilateral aid fund under OAS administration. What little we would lose in economic leverage would be more than compensated diplomatically by diminishing Nicaraguan suspicions of U.S. intent.

One strategic concern of U.S. officials is that a radical government in Managua will embark on a campaign of exporting revolution to its Central American neighbors. This fear for the security of the conservative military regimes in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is a realistic one, but its formulation betrays a distressing myopia. Nicaragua may well provide sanctuaries and even limited arms to guerrillas from Honduras and El Salvador, just as Costa Rica provided such assistance to the anti-Somoza opposition. For Nicaragua's new leaders to do otherwise would be for them to turn their backs on their own revolutionary experience.

Nicaraguan sanctuaries and arms, however, will not produce revolution in Honduras or El Salvador. If Cuba's experience in the late 1960s proved anything, it proved that revolutions cannot be exported-they are invariably domestic products. Yet the example of Nicaragua's revolution will surely stimulate opposition to military dictatorship, not just in Central America but throughout the Hemisphere. It is truly unfortunate to find U.S. policy still focused narrowly on how to ensure the stability of such regimes by insulating them from the political fallout of the Nicaraguan revolution.

The value of stability is not inherent; it depends on the quality of the society over which stability reigns. The fear of "another Cuba" has caused the United States to lose sight of this truism in the years since the Alliance for Progress faltered and died. Coming so soon in the wake of Iran, the Nicaraguan revolution ought to have reminded us that stability enforced by bayonets is fragile indeed. Yet one has the uneasy feeling that, instead of searching for a way to replace the Hemisphere's military dictatorships short of violent upheaval, U.S. policymakers are already narrowly preoccupied with preventing "another Nicaragua."


Twenty years ago, the United States and the newly victorious government in Cuba faced one another with mutual suspicion and latent hostility. Certainly, both parties contributed to the spiralling process of animosity which ensued. Yet it is equally certain that the United States could have done much to avoid the deterioration of relations simply by being more sensitive to the nationalist and reformist aspirations of revolutionary Cuba.

Today, the United States faces another revolutionary government and again there are mutual suspicions and uncertainties. Relations have begun on a more solid footing because the United States joined the anti-Somoza forces before the proverbial train left the station, but we were still the last aboard. Thus far the United States has opted for a constructive "wait-and-see" policy which promises to judge the new Nicaraguan government on the basis of its actions rather than on U.S. preconceptions. Yet there is still the danger that such judgments will be colored by unrealistic expectations of how the new regime ought to behave.

The changes pending in Nicaraguan society are major ones, and they will probably be less incremental than the United States would like. They will engender sharp debate in Nicaragua, and probably political conflict as well. The most conservative forces, the forces with which the United States feels the greatest kinship, are not likely to fare well in these debates. Their future depends upon their willingness to accommodate themselves to a new Nicaragua in which their political might and economic muscle are no longer as potent as they once were.

The United States faces a similar dilemma. If "another Cuba" means a regime less pliant to U.S. interests, Nicaragua has already become another Cuba. If "another Cuba" means a radically reformist regime which puts the interests of the general populace ahead of the interests of the upper classes, Nicaragua will almost inevitably become another Cuba. If these are the facets of Cuban reality to which the United States objects, the prospects for friendly U.S.-Nicaraguan relations are dim indeed.

Yet neither of these prospects threatens the vital interests of the United States. Neither leads inexorably to a Nicaragua aligned with the Soviet Union, which is after all the sort of "another Cuba" which the United States ought to be most concerned about. The linkage between internal reform and external realignment toward the U.S.S.R. is likely to be forged only by U.S. hostility to the domestic changes wrought by Nicaragua's revolutionary process. That, at least, was our experience with Cuba. If the United States responds to change in Nicaragua with support, or at least tolerance, we can still avoid repeating the sorts of errors that proved so strategically costly 20 years ago. To do otherwise is to invite another Cuba.

1 For an excellent history of early U.S.-Nicaraguan relations, see Richard Millet, Guardians of the Dynasty, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1977.

2 See Lynn B. Bender, The Politics of Hostility: Castro's Revolution and United States Policy, Hato Rey, Puerto Rico: Inter American University Press, 1975.



You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • William M. LeoGrande is Assistant Professor of Government at the College of Public and International Affairs of the American University.
  • More By William M. LeoGrande