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Incisive Nicaraguan history says Sandinistas aren't what they claim

By Kenneth Harper / September 30, 1985



Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family, by Shirley Christian. New York: Random House. 338 pp. $19.95. Shirley Christian's ``Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family'' carries a simple proposition: the Sandinistas are not what they would like Westerners to think they are. A foreign affairs reporter for the New York Times, Ms. Christian covered Central America for the Associated Press and the Miami Herald. She argues convincingly that the Sandinistas are not and never have been a populist, grass-roots phenomenon; rather, they are -- and always have been -- a disciplined, calculating, Marxist-Leninist organizat ion. Christian says the Sandinistas have combined canny planning with fortuitous events to achieve their primary aims: the attainment and consolidation of power in Nicaragua.

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Christian points out that the FSLN's name (Sandinista National Liberation Front) was chosen to capitalize on the legend that grew up around Augusto Sandino, the Nicaraguan peasant whose guerrillas fought a contingent of US Marines to a standstill in the 1930s, ultimately causing President Herbert Hoover to order the Americans' withdrawal. Sandino was later killed by Nicaraguan National Guardsmen. Their leader was Anastazio Somoza Garc'ia, the caudillo (strong man) who ruled Nicaragua from 1 933 until his assassination in 1956.

Somoza's appetite for land was as voracious as his capacity for food. His landholdings were passed on to his son Anastazio Somoza Debayle (the last name indicating his mother's surname). ``Tachito,'' a West Point graduate, followed in his father's footsteps, maintaining power through the National Guard and tenuous agreements with Nicaraguan oligarchs known as ``The Fourteen Families.''

Christian contends that the younger Somoza's antagonism of the wider business community -- not to be confused with the oligarchy -- led to his downfall in 1979. The business community comprised the terceristas, or third force, supporting the FSLN after looking to Washington for help in removing Somoza. Christian sharply criticizes the Carter administration for its failure to act firmly and swiftly enough in cutting off aid to Somoza. American decisiveness, she writes, could have meant a neg otiated settlement that would have put the terceristas on firmer ground with the FSLN in a subsequent compromise government.

Christian notes that although the revolution was a popular movement, the establishment of ruling bodies afterward has been tightly controlled by the FSLN. She cites the mercurial fortunes of Eden Pastora, the famous Commander Zero, as the most dramatic case of before-and-after. Pastora pulled off what was virtually a suicide mission in August 1978, when he and 24 comrades seized the National Palace, holding captive the national Congress and various ministers of state for a ransom of a half-million dolla rs, publication of FSLN literature, and the release of 50 prisoners, terms that Somoza accepted.

Pastora had headed the Sandino Revolutionary Front and had been fighting the Somozas for some 20 years before allying himself with the FSLN in what turned out to be the final two years of the revolution. Although an admirer of Cuban guerrilla leader Ch'e Guevarra, Pastora was not a Marxist. In fact, the Sandinistas have recently criticized him for being ``a Christian.''