WHILE the Bush administration and many pundits see the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua as simply a continuation of the democratic trend sweeping Eastern Europe, the circumstances are quite different. Failure to make such a distinction, in fact, could be disastrous for US foreign policy. To begin with, communist regimes in Eastern Europe were installed by an occupying Soviet army. Their revolutions came from above, with little popular support. The Sandinistas came to power through a popular revolution against a dictator. Though leftward drift, the suppression of civil liberties, and inept administration alienated segments of the population, the Sandinistas have always had more popular support than any ruling party in the Soviet bloc. Indeed, the Sandinistas' percentage of the popular vote in their loss was the same as the victorious Conservatives in the 1987 British election.
Another distinction is that, despite Reagan and Bush administration claims to the contrary, Nicaragua was never a totalitarian state. Despite censorship and suppression of opposition activity, Nicaragua was far freer than any Eastern European society. Amnesty International and other reputable rights groups, while critical of Nicaragua, documented more rights violations by communist governments in Europe. The Nicaraguan economy sustained a higher level of private enterprise than did Eastern Europe.
The most important difference is that the communist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed under their own weight. The repression, corruption, and contradictions between the promise of socialism and the reality of everyday life reached a critical point, made possible by glasnost.
By contrast, the defeat of the Sandinistas was largely a result of external pressure. The US created, armed, trained, and sustained a military force which killed upwards of 30,000 Nicaraguans. Operatives of the CIA sabotaged ports, oil facilities, and other targets. The physical damage from the war on the country's economic infrastructure, combined with the enormous defense costs, was a huge drain. In addition, the economic embargo by the US (on which Nicaragua had depended for trade), a devastating hurricane, and falling export prices harmed the economy.
Most analysts agree the poor state of the economy led to the Sandinistas' defeat. Nicaraguans, like voters elsewhere, blame the government in power for their problems. And while the Sandinistas certainly contributed their share to the country's economic woes, the role of the US in the destruction of the economy shouldn't be underestimated.
The majority of Nicaraguan critics of the Sandinistas did not support US policy either. They argued the embargo hurt the private sector and that US-sponsored attacks gave the Sandinistas an excuse to crack down on legitimate dissent. The contras had little credibility in Nicaragua due to their foreign backing, affiliations with Somoza, and attacks on civilians. Indeed, despite assertions by both the Sandinistas and the Bush administration, most parties in the UNO coalition are not counter-revolutionary.
Even Nicaraguans who did not blame the Sandinistas for the country's problems realized their reelection would mean a continuation of the embargo, and possibly continued war. By contrast, a UNO victory would mean an end to armed conflict, renewed US aid and trade relations. A vote for UNO became a rational choice; principles of ideology and sovereignty rarely hold up to inflation, shortages, and terrorism. The vote, then, should not be interpreted as a rejection of socialism or the Sandinistas, but as a reflection of US ability to influence weak Central American states.
Just as the Soviets are finally allowing countries within their traditional sphere of influence in Eastern Europe to decide their own destiny, the US is invading Panama, undermining Nicaragua, and aiding a brutal regime in El Salvador. The lessons from the changes in Eastern Europe should be of the importance of noninterference. To use these events as an excuse for further intervention in Central America would be a tragic irony.