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The U.S. Isn’t the Main Character of This History

Researching the Sandinista Revolution from Nicaraguans’ perspective.

A Nicaragua obsession gripped the United States in the 1980s. For one, the unlikely overthrow of the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship by left-wing guerrillas electrified progressives. Tens of thousands of Americans — including Bernie Sanders, the young mayor of Burlington, Vermont — traveled in solidarity to the previously obscure Central American country to help the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) redistribute wealth and transform its society. At the same time, the 1979 Sandinista Revolution alarmed conservatives. President Ronald Reagan told Americans that this “malignancy in Managua” would spread Marxist-Leninist terrorism and bring the Soviet threat to America’s “doorstep.” The U.S. government thus began funding anti-Sandinista insurgents known as the Contra, as in contrarrevolucionarios, helping mire Nicaragua in civil war. 

That policy also ignited fiery debates in Washington, which culminated in Reagan’s near-impeachment during the Iran-Contra scandal. Throughout, Americans used events in Nicaragua to press their case about their country’s foreign affairs and domestic politics. Neoconservative intellectual Robert Kagan — a State Department staffer during the Reagan years — recognized that much of the controversy “was not about Nicaragua at all. It was a battle to define America at home and abroad.” A flood of scholarship and reporting on the Sandinistas, often based on U.S. sources and adopting the view from Washington, DC, was strongly colored by those debates. 

We see their influence in a stream of publications from the era that analyzed FSLN governance with an eye toward either confirming or debunking Reagan’s view that the Sandinistas were fanatical, tyrannical, and incompetent communists who had to be stopped. The political stakes of the 1980s also reveal themselves in the prevailing tendency, at least outside of country specialists, to think of the Sandinista Revolution primarily as a chapter in the history of U.S. foreign relations. This is not always a bad thing. For example, historians approaching from this vantage point have used the Nicaraguan Revolution to look back and explore the broader scope of American hegemony in Latin America, or to look forward and better contextualize 21st-century adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, analysts have successfully assessed the motivations and consequences of Reagan’s intervention in Nicaragua. This work is indispensable, not only because U.S. citizens deserve to know what their leaders do abroad in their name, but also because American policies — which went beyond the Contra operation to include economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and direct sabotage by CIA agents — had a decisive impact on Nicaragua’s revolutionary process. Among other things, they constrained the Sandinistas’ policymaking and helped fuel the devastating armed conflict mentioned earlier. And when that war concluded, the resolution of American policy debates was a decisive factor. Political scientist William Leogrande, who wrote the best account of U.S. foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s, is therefore right to say that the fate of the region’s inhabitants “depended fundamentally on decisions made in Washington.”

However, they did not exclusively depend on decisions made in Washington. Viewing Nicaraguan politics exclusively through the prism of U.S. foreign policy debates can both deny local agency and create unhelpful terms of reference. To begin creating new histories of the Revolution, new context must be given to old frameworks.


Unsurprisingly, when the FSLN was voted out of office in 1990 and as the Cold War ended, Nicaragua and its revolution lost their centrality in the U.S. political debate. A decade-long American obsession ended rather swiftly. 

In Nicaragua, the Sandinista Revolution was harder to leave behind. Only a generation ago, it abruptly raised — and then dashed — colossal hopes for socioeconomic and political renewal, generating devastating conflicts in the process that have fundamentally shaped public life in the country ever since. A narrow focus on U.S. foreign policy, aside from denying local agency, cannot tell us why there was a revolution in Nicaragua, what its leaders hoped to accomplish, or how they set about the messy business of remaking a country. 

Moreover, the view from Washington can obscure the Nicaraguan Revolution’s global dimensions. It was the last gasp of armed revolution — a historical climax, as FSLN leader Sergio Ramírez noted in his memoir, for an entire generation who admired Lumumba and Guevara, read Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, celebrated decolonization in Asia and Africa, protested in 1968, and believed that socialism held the key to modernity and development. In Western Europe, the Sandinistas’ promise to blend Marxism with liberal democratic sensibilities played well to an appetite for a “third road” in Cold War politics; English punk rock band The Clash — led by Joe Strummer, a self-described socialist and anti-imperialist who rejected Soviet-style communism — named their fourth album after Nicaragua’s revolutionaries. The Revolution’s symbolism was especially pronounced in Latin America. It was the first and only time since the Cuban Revolution in 1959 that the armed Left seized power in Latin America. This is the primary context through which historians should understand the Nicaraguan Revolution, more than the oft-studied framework of U.S. intervention in the so-called Third World. 

An international history of the Sandinistas allows me to help answer the following questions: Why was there a social revolution in Nicaragua? What did it mean for Latin American politics in the final years of the Cold War? What risks and opportunities did the global confrontation between capitalism and socialism create for the Sandinistas’ political project? And how did global trends otherwise inform Nicaragua’s revolutionary process? The answers to these questions are crucial to Nicaraguans. But they also put the history of contemporary Latin America — and of the strange global transitions that accompanied the end of the Cold War — in a new light.


I am grateful to follow scholars who, writing during and after the Revolution, have transcended Reagan-era framings and treated the topic with necessary nuance. Thanks to their research, it is easier than ever to build histories of 20th-century Nicaragua that Nicaraguans can actually recognize themselves in. In my research for this book, I strove to center the story on the Nicaraguans who wielded state power between 1979 and 1990: the political and military elite of the Sandinista government, with a special focus on its foreign relations apparatus. This design choice posed several obstacles. For one, Nicaragua lacks a strong and accessible public archives system. To gain an inside perspective on the FSLN leadership, I leveraged personal contacts and found nontraditional sources of documentation, such as the private archives of senior Sandinista officials who had crates of untouched documents collecting dust in their homes. I consulted countless published memoirs and documentary collections produced by revolutionaries, counterrevolutionaries, and everyone in between. Thanks to the recentness of this historical episode and the relative youth of its protagonists, oral history was a viable research methodology. I conducted on-the-record interviews with members of the FSLN’s nine-person National Directorate (the collective, supreme leadership of the Revolution), generals from the Sandinista Popular Army, top diplomats, and numerous figures from the party intelligentsia. MP3s or rough transcripts of these conversations are available upon request. I spoke with many more off the record. 

My research also reconfigures the terrain upon which the Sandinista Revolution unfolded. Nicaragua, like all other countries in the Western Hemisphere, does not exist in a vacuum with the United States. Beyond key socialist partners like the Soviet Union and Cuba, state and non-state actors from Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East saw something relevant at play in Central America’s Cold War conflicts and involved themselves in ways that shaped the Nicaraguan revolutionary process. I also procured archival sources and conducted oral history interviews with leaders in Mexico City, Havana, San José (Costa Rica), and Panama City. 

I worked in tandem with other young historians who have been taking the Sandinistas beyond the realm of U.S.–Latin American relations. All of us are influenced by ongoing efforts by Latinamericanists to provide a more kaleidoscopic vision of the region’s Cold War experience, which themselves form part of a broader wave of “new Cold War histories” — often associated with Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times — that understand 20th-century international history as being shaped by a global ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism that involved Asian, African, and Middle Eastern leaders as much as Europeans and North Americans. Especially influential to me are histories of Third World revolutions that take the perspective of their leaders and place their dilemmas in international perspective; these include Tanya Harmer’s work on Chile’s Allende government, Lien-Hang Nguyen on North Vietnam, Matthew Connelly on Algeria’s war for independence, and Paul Chamberlin on the Palestine Liberation Organization. Following these examples, a globalized, international history of the Sandinistas can help us better understand Nicaragua’s revolutionary process because events, actors, and conflicts beyond the country were a key variable in determining the possibilities for change inside it. At the same time, this approach frees up space to ask what the Sandinista episode tells us about international politics in the years immediately before and after the Cold War ended. 

As scholars revisit the Sandinista Revolution and place it in global perspective, they must think carefully about how to characterize the Nicaraguan actors involved. New histories must refuse the temptation to either romanticize or demonize Sandinista leaders. The same goes for their opponents. All revolutions have a Manichaean quality, and contemporary polarization in Nicaragua — where longtime Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega has consolidated a family dictatorship built upon an unforgiving police state — has accentuated this facet in the Revolution’s historical memory. For solidarity movement activists who traveled to Nicaragua in the 1980s and deposited great hopes in its revolution, or for those in the Nicaraguan diaspora who fled violence or persecution in that period, this history is understandably sensitive. It is also necessary. Nicaraguans today, the vast majority of whom were born after the Revolution, are poorly served by histories that uncritically reproduce the perspective of one segment of society, or that otherwise frame the Revolution and subsequent war as stories of heroes and villains, patriots and traitors, or freedom fighters and thugs.  

This is not to say, of course, that I am free of predispositions. Both of my parents participated enthusiastically in the Sandinistas’ revolutionary project. They were joined by many of their friends and relatives. But they found just as many people they cared for, such as some of their siblings, on the other side — including the Contra. Countless Sandinista guerrillas came from somocista families, and many Contra commanders previously cut their teeth fighting in FSLN columns against Somoza’s National Guard. Nicaraguan politics, like those of any country, are complicated. Combined with the geopolitical and ideological stakes of the Cold War, that complexity played out in horrific ways during the 1970s and ’80s: the conflict between the Sandinista government and the Contra, like the previous war that ousted Somoza, was fought within communities and families. Mine were ripped apart and, in that sense, I am like many Nicaraguans of my age. Being so close to the tearing of the social fabric — as well as the fraught process of reconciliation that came afterward — shaped how I approach Nicaraguans’ revolutionary and counterrevolutionary struggles, as well as the violence they entailed. 

One thing that makes me different from most Nicaraguans is that I come from a privileged background in a country marked, both before and after the Revolution, by unacceptable levels of poverty and inequality. My parents held relatively senior posts in the FSLN government. My mother, Claudia Lucía Chamorro, is a daughter of Nicaragua’s best-known political family, one that has dominated public life since the founding of the republic. Her father Pedro Joaquín, assassinated by the Somoza dictatorship in 1978, was a central figure in the origins of the revolution that triumphed the following year. My grandmother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, was a member of the Revolution’s first governing Junta and later became president, defeating her former Sandinista allies in elections in 1990. Members of my family continue to play prominent roles in Nicaraguan politics to this day: as influential journalists, presidential hopefuls, and — more recently — as political prisoners and exiles. Unlike most of my compatriots, then, I can say that those close to me have both suffered at the hands of the state and wielded its power. This, too, is reflected in my research. In approaching the history of the Sandinista Revolution, I mostly focus on the thinking and decision making of national elites. A comprehensive account also requires a bottom-up, grassroots perspective that this one lacks. But the concentration of power that comes with overwhelming social inequality—even in the context of a redistributive, socialist-inspired political project — suggests that decisions made by the FSLN upper echelon are a great place to start writing the history of the revolutionary period. 

There are countless other ways that my background informs my scholarship. Both of my parents were diplomats and later worked for international organizations, and that I spent much of my childhood living outside Nicaragua. It always struck me as curious that the Sandinistas were so well known abroad — that they had found so much success in revolutionizing the international scene — even though they had clearly struggled to bring about social transformation at home. This is one of the motivating ironies of my research. I am also motivated by a basic commitment to help Nicaraguan civil society confront the country’s present — and build its future — by engaging first in spirited debates about its recent past. 

Adapted excerpt from The Sandinista Revolution: A Global Latin American History by Mateo Jarquín. Copyright © 2024 by The University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of The University of North Carolina Press.







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