Look at Inner Circle : Sandinistas Still Defying Easy Labels

Times Staff Writers

Tens of thousands of Sandinista National Liberation Front supporters filled Managua’s Revolution Square the night a Central American peace plan was to take effect. The crowd was defiant, waiting for President Daniel Ortega with banners that demanded, “Contras, Surrender! We Negotiate Only With Bullets.”

Through six years of war, the Sandinistas had insisted they would negotiate only with Washington, not its proxy army. Even after signing the peace accord, Ortega had argued he was not obliged to talk to the Contras until they put down their guns. The soldiers, students, war widows and government workers assembled that night expected the president to stand firm.

But Ortega astounded his audience. The revolutionary government, he said, would engage the rebels in cease-fire talks “to take away the pretext of our enemies” for further war. An awkward silence fell over the crowd, followed by a murmur of disbelief.

“I felt a profound pain,” recalled Esperanza Gutierrez. She had lost her only son in the Sandinista-led uprising against the Somoza dictatorship, then a brother and a nephew in the Contra war. “I did not want to give in. I wanted to finish them off.”


That dramatic moment last November, more than any other, revealed the clash of impulses within the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front as it faces the prospect of peace. Behind Ortega’s bold initiative was a conviction that political concessions were needed to stop a war that has frustrated the Sandinista revolution and killed 28,000 Nicaraguans. But the stunned reaction of party rank and file foreshadowed an enduring belligerence that was to limit his flexibility and contribute to a breakdown of the peace process.

Goal Within Reach

That process has weakened the rebel insurgency, enabling the Sandinistas to enter their 10th year in power within reach of the goal that has driven them hardest--outlasting the Reagan Administration. Today, billboards along Nicaragua’s highways boast: “Reagan Is Going. The Revolution Is Staying.”

But what kind of revolution and how tolerant of its enemies?


As they have grappled with these questions during a tumultuous year of negotiations, the Sandinistas have afforded a closer look at who they are, how their inner circle operates and how they handle dissent.

In interviews during this period, 30 Sandinista front members and three of the nine top comandantes spoke confidently of running Nicaragua for many years to come, with some degree of political freedom and private enterprise but no sharing of their considerable military power.

Their confidence seems well founded. Besides force of arms, the Sandinistas have a clear nationalist identity and a wealth of youthful energy that responds to a strong collective leadership. Although Ortega has emerged as the party’s leading figure, he shares decision making with the other comandantes .

But Sandinistas at all levels are divided on how to achieve the peace needed to rebuild their battered nation. They seem torn between two identities: the statesmen the world expects them to be and the guerrillas they once were. They are constantly maneuvering to advance peace talk--while drafting more young men into the army. They have invited their adversaries to engage in peaceful politics--and threatened to destroy them if they don’t.

To outsiders, these contradictory impulses make the Sandinistas hard to deal with. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez thought he could end the Contra war by getting Ortega to practice Western-style democracy. Arias’ peace plan, which was signed in August, 1987, and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize a few months later, was successful to a point. Political freedom was broadened in Nicaragua, Congress cut off the Contras’ U.S. military aid and most of the fighting stopped with a truce negotiated in March.

But just as the war appeared near an end, the Sandinistas met unarmed adversaries on another battlefront. Facing street rallies, labor strikes and abusive media criticism from a newly active opposition, they struck back with political gangs. After the Contras broke off peace talks in June and stepped up truce violations, the Sandinistas imposed a broader crackdown on internal dissent.

Does all this mean the Sandinistas “fear freedom and democracy more than guns and tanks,” as Arias complained in exasperation? Or is it simply, as the Sandinistas contend, that war and internal agitation are too much for any government to tolerate at once? Beyond these questions, the broader goals of the revolution remain distant and vaguely defined, submerged in the Sandinistas’ daily struggle to survive.

Throughout their movement’s 27-year history, the Sandinistas have defied easy labels. To the Reagan Administration, they are Marxist-Leninists. Their one-time allies on the left, declared Marxist-Leninists themselves, claim all that remains of Sandinista ideology is an appetite for power. The Sandinistas have confounded critics and even followers with ever-shifting policies, alliances and strategies.


The Sandinistas arrived in Managua on July 19, 1979, young heroes of a popular insurrection that ended four decades of dictatorship by the family of President Anastasio Somoza. In the mountains, they had skimmed Marx and Lenin but paid more attention to the writings of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara and Vietnamese strategists on how to liberate a country.

‘We Expected to Die’

The Sandinistas admit having been shocked by their sudden victory and being unprepared to govern. “We didn’t expect to win,” recalls party official Vanesa Castro. “We expected to die.”

The Sandinista front took its name from Gen. Augusto Cesar Sandino, a folk hero who fought the U.S. Marine occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s and 1930s. Sandino was a spiritualist who embraced anarchism while rejecting Marxism. But Sandinismo, as crafted in the 1960s by party founder Carlos Fonseca Amador, was a different blend that included Marxism, Christianity and nationalism.

In 1979, Daniel Ortega’s brother, Humberto, put his stamp on Sandinismo by fashioning a winning alliance between guerrillas and the bourgeoisie. To gain support from politicians and businessmen opposed to Somoza, the Sandinistas promised political pluralism, a mixed economy and international nonalignment.

Soon after the victory, many allies accused the Sandinistas of retreating from that commitment. As the United States assembled and financed a rebel insurgency, the Sandinistas closed opposition news media, seized land from their enemies and restricted political rights in the name of national security. Under the Arias peace plan, they reversed many of those measures, only to clamp down again after negotiations collapsed.

“The Sandinistas are brilliant tacticians and maneuverers, like the Israelis,” said a European ambassador. “Their day-to-day survival depends so much on neutralizing external pressures. They have little time to think about long-term objectives.”

Comandante Tomas Borge, the party’s only surviving founder, said two Sandinista tenets are fundamental: anti-imperialism and social justice. This means resisting U.S. pressures, he said, and defending a system that promises power to Nicaragua’s poor majority.


“What we cannot renounce is the pre-eminence of working-class power,” he said in an interview. “In other countries the bourgeoisie dominates and gives political space to the workers. Here it is the reverse.”

Some Capitalist Measures

In practice, the Sandinistas have stretched even this principle to manage a faltering economy. In abolishing most price controls this year, President Ortega told workers that sweeping socialism would be “wise economic policy” but political suicide. To ensure the survival of a socialist-oriented government, he said, they must swallow some capitalist measures that seem at odds with their interests.

Ortega drew the bottom line in another speech. “If the people went crazy and elected an opposition party,” he said, “that party could govern as long as it respected the established power, and we would be in the opposition, defending that established power. The minute they tried to return the properties confiscated by the people from the Somocistas, the minute they tried to convert the people’s army into a capitalist army, the people would rise up at once, and the Sandinista Front would be at the head of that insurrection.”

Sandinistas are taught that their movement is the vanguard of poor workers and peasants. Through a party structured on the Leninist model, in which decision making is concentrated at the top, it aspires to lead what it describes, in Marxist terms, as a class struggle. Like Marxist-Leninist regimes, the front calls itself democratic less for its commitment to elections than for its promise of land, schooling and health care for all.

But call him a Marxist-Leninist and a Sandinista will bristle with nationalist indignation. “I think of myself as a Sandinista,” said party official Ivan Larios. “Why do I have to say more?”

Rely on Soviet, Cuban Aid

The Sandinistas identify with other Third World revolutionary governments and rely on Soviet and Cuban aid. But the differences with these governments are striking. The Sandinistas allow outside human rights investigators to judge them by Western standards. They permit strident criticism by anti-revolutionary news media, opposition parties and a powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy. Although the government monopolizes banking and foreign trade, it has left more than half of production in private hands and lifted most wage controls along with price controls.

Some party leaders consider their Cuban benefactors too dogmatic. “Fidel Castro would never make it here,” said one.

All this is a far cry from the one-party socialist state that many Sandinistas envisioned when they came to power. What changed their ideal, they say, was their own economic mismanagement and growing awareness that orthodox Marxism doesn’t work in Nicaragua. The urban wage-earning class is too small, the peasant farmers too independent. Some Sandinistas admit that the Contra war brought these lessons home.

“In truth, we did not take the ideas of pluralism and a mixed economy so seriously at first,” Comandante Jaime Wheelock, now the minister of agrarian reform, said in an interview. “When you are young and fighting dictatorship, you admire revolutions that bring rapid, massive, violent change. But the experience of governing, confronting reality, teaches you.”

The Sandinistas’ retreat from orthodoxy has paralleled the rise of Daniel Ortega to the top of the party. But while leading the bid for peace, he remains committed to the principle of collective leadership.

Until Ortega’s election by popular vote in November, 1984, Sandinista Nicaragua did not have a president or an undisputed leader. Power was spread among the nine comandantes on the National Directorate--a security arrangement from their guerrilla days.

Photographs of the directorate still hang in government offices, and Sandinista functionaries nod toward them while discussing where political power lies. But in recent years, Ortega’s presidential portrait has found its own place on the wall.

The presidency is a strong institution here, as elsewhere in Latin America, and Ortega has used it to fill the ministries with his men, notably technocrats who downplay ideology in tackling economic problems.

Ortega, 42, strengthened his position by reorganizing the directorate in 1985. He created a five-member executive commission and became its chairman, displacing Comandante Bayardo Arce as the top party official. The president also heads an economic commission that includes three other comandantes --Luis Carrion, Henry Ruiz and Wheelock.

Major Political Victory

In 1986, nearly two years into his six-year term, Ortega won a major political victory when the Sandinista-controlled National Assembly rejected proposals to limit the number of times a president can serve. In doing so, it set back the ambitions of Interior Minister Borge, Ortega’s chief rival in the party.

Political analysts now refer to the “Ortega faction” as the dominant force on the directorate. The president’s brother commands the army and another close ally, Comandante Victor Tirado, oversees the party’s mass organizations.

Although the directorate is the party’s supreme body, setting major policies by consensus, it was President Ortega who pushed his fellow comandantes to embrace the regional peace accord and negotiate with the Contras. In an interview, he said the directorate accepted his peace initiatives “99% of the time.”

Wheelock said he opposed negotiations at first “because the Contras (are) the antithesis of us. They are the past . . . everything that was repression, killing, corruption. We (thought we) couldn’t negotiate with them without losing something.”

Ortega said he prevailed by arguing that rebel leaders, shaken by the Iran-Contra scandal and declining support in Congress, seemed ready to defy Washington and seek a peace treaty.

He said his negotiating strategy was inspired by a pacifist clamor from Nicaraguans in the war zones, not all of them Sandinistas, who lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict. Other officials said Ortega was willing to risk a loss of support in the party to bring peace to the country. His greatest disappointment as president, he said, is failing to end the war.

Washington Blamed

When the rebels broke off peace talks, he blamed Washington, tacitly admitting that his strategy had been flawed. Ortega supported, but did not lead, the crackdown on dissent that followed, party officials said. “There are times when the president can act with autonomy, but this decision was definitely made by the whole group,” said government spokesman Dionisio Marenco.

Borge said the comandantes have “different points of view” on how to end the war. “At times we have debated to the point of physical exhaustion.” But once a policy was set, he insisted, “there has not been a single dissenting voice.”

Other Sandinistas say the comandantes learned a lesson from Grenada, where feuding among revolutionary leaders in 1983 prompted the United States to invade and overthrow the government. Some outsiders believe it is only U.S. hostility that keeps Nicaragua’s leaders united. But the view inside the party is different: War or no war, there will always be unpopular decisions, and only collective leadership can assure their acceptance by the rank and file.

“The Sandinista leadership has charisma,” said Danilo Aguirre, editor of El Nuevo Diario, a pro-Sandinista newspaper. “It is not the individual charisma of Fidel Castro or Ronald Reagan. This is a group of men who insisted for years that the only way to overthrow Somoza was by force. History has proven them right. And despite their mistakes, they have survived eight years of North American aggression.”

The comandantes must consider the opinions of party members when making policy. In a country where nearly every family has lost someone to war, one of their hardest decisions was amnesty. Resentment runs deep.

The Arias peace accord did not state who amnesty should cover. The Roman Catholic bishops argued that, in addition to rebel combatants, the government should pardon 1,800 imprisoned members of Somoza’s National Guard. When President Ortega first suggested that prisoners might be freed, an outcry arose from the mothers of war dead organized by the party. Esperanza Gutierrez was among the most vehement.

Wearing pink hair curlers and chain-smoking Kents in her living room one Saturday, the 49-year-old neighborhood leader told a story to explain why she thought all guardsmen belong in jail.

Gutierrez was a Sandinista collaborator in the anti-Somoza insurrection, and her only son was a combatant. She joined a parents’ committee to search for the disappeared. On one of her prison visits, she persuaded a National Guard lieutenant to sell her information.

“He gave me good information for the money, names of the detained, what cell they had been in and who made them disappear,” Gutierrez recalled. “He also bragged about torturing people.”

Her son died in combat a month before Somoza fled. After the Sandinistas’ triumph, she forgot the lieutenant until he appeared one day in 1986 at a Managua bus stop, filling her with an old fear.

‘Just Give the Order’

The lieutenant said he had served his sentence and learned several trades in prison but still wanted to be a military man. He asked Gutierrez for a recommendation to join the Sandinista army. Gutierrez laughed and said she didn’t think he should be free, let alone carry a gun. Later, he offered to go to Miami to “finish off” ex-guard officers who were now Contras. He resented them for abandoning their men as the old regime collapsed. The Sandinistas didn’t have to pay him, the lieutenant said, just give the order.

“You’re still a mercenary,” Gutierrez told him.

Surprised by the depth of opposition, Sandinista leaders moved slowly on amnesty. They sent party militants into neighborhoods to persuade people to accept it. Ivan Larios, who fought against Somoza and was once jailed by him, spent three weeks pleading with Gutierrez. He even took her to meet another guardsman, who supposedly had been reformed. Gutierrez was not impressed.

“She told him he was educated to kill,” Larios said, shaking his head.

The government freed about 1,100 political prisoners but decided to keep more than 3,000 others in jail, including most of the guardsmen, until Contra leaders sign an armistice and disarm most of their troops. Amnesty, an emotional issue on both sides, remains an obstacle to a peace settlement.

Having once overthrown a government, the Sandinistas know the impact of political agitation. They occupied universities and led labor strikes in their war to oust Somoza. Today, although formally committed to an open political system, they are determined not to permit a similar strategy of destabilization against themselves. For the last year, Sandinista leaders have struggled with a dilemma: how to keep the fervor of their supporters and control of the country without seeming repressive.

After government curbs on political activity were lifted in January, opposition parties vowed to test their new freedom to the limit. The Sandinistas soon made it clear they would not let even legal demonstrations against them go unchallenged.

The first major showdown came on a blistering Sunday in March when government and right-wing demonstrators gathered on opposite sides of the town square of Masaya like angry bulls facing off in a corral.

Fist-Sized Rocks Thrown

Sandinista youths carried sticks with red and black party flags. Most of the rightists were middle-aged, but they brought a few young thugs to taunt the Sandinistas. As soon as their march began, name-calling turned to shouting, and the Sandinistas let loose a volley of fist-sized rocks. For more than an hour, they chased the demonstrators through the streets swinging their sticks.

“We won these streets with blood and sweat, and we have to defend them,” shouted Pablo Santana, 25, a Sandinista street fighter.

The Sandinistas’ anger was genuine, but the assault was not spontaneous. It marked a return of the turbas , or Sandinista political gangs. Each turba of 15 to 20 rowdies was led by a party activist. The top party official in Masaya perched on the back of a pickup truck to direct the assault, while police stood by.

The unleashing of the turbas allowed party militants to let off steam while keeping the opposition at bay and the government’s hands clean. As youths, the Sandinistas had feared Somoza’s repressive National Guard; as leaders, they were reluctant to use police for riot control.

Tensions Aggravated

But the turbas proved controversial within the party, aggravating tensions between its guerrilla instincts and its legal authority. Borge, a guerrilla leader for 18 years before he took over the Sandinista police, seemed particularly torn.

“The turbas are the people,” Borge said. “As a political leader, I say the people have a right to express themselves with energy and enthusiasm. As a political leader, I say, go out into the streets; don’t let them take the streets away from you. But as interior minister, I say don’t disturb the public order.”

After lengthy debate, the comandantes decided to rein in the turbas and use police. Officials said their main concern was to prevent bloodshed. The ex-guerrillas remember how martyrs can fuel an insurrection.

“The problem is that to let the people enter into an ideological confrontation really is dangerous, and we saw that this could end up with somebody dead,” Ortega said.

Scores Were Injured

The shift became evident in July, when riot police were sent to the town of Nandaime to control several thousand protesters calling for a “government of national salvation.” Taunted by the crowd, the police attacked with clubs, tear gas and rifle butts. Scores on both sides were injured as demonstrators fought back with sticks and rocks. More than 40 were jailed on charges of joining a U.S.-led conspiracy to undermine the government. The Sandinistas closed opposition news media temporarily and expelled the U.S. ambassador. Anti-government demonstrations have been banned ever since.

But dissent is still an issue among Sandinistas. In interviews, some officials said open political competition is healthier for their party, although they agreed that dissent must be restricted as long as the United States encourages it in wartime. Others said leniency also depends on economic recovery, while a few insisted that the government’s legitimacy can never be challenged in the streets. The Sandinistas’ frustration over the issue was dramatized when Borge, reluctant to apply direct censorship, punched an opposition radio broadcaster in the face.

The prevailing hard line has been reinforced by younger party members involved in the war. They have urged the leadership at recent assemblies to take even tougher measures, such as closing the opposition newspaper La Prensa for good and ending the truce.

Wake for Party Militants

Hours after the Nandaime disorder, hundreds of Sandinista youths held a wake in Managua for two party militants killed in a rural Contra ambush. Word of that day’s rioting spread among the mourners, adding a layer of anger to their grief. “The peace plan was supposed to bring peace, but it did not work,” said Claribel Andino. “It’s time to declare war again.”

Their hostility stems from a proud guerrilla past and a belief, drummed in for years by party leaders, that the revolutionary struggle is never-ending. In some ways, peacemakers like President Ortega are trapped by their earlier, uncompromising rhetoric and by the need to keep the support of militants, like Andino, who still believe it.

Andino, a construction worker’s daughter, joined in the Sandinista armed takeover of her Managua high school at age 16. Moved by the National Guard’s slaying of a classmate, she went underground as a guerrilla, code-named Maria, and refused to put down her AK-47 rifle or undo her braids until Somoza fell.

Today, the dark, energetic veteran runs a Sandinista Youth office in Managua. She works 12-hour days, recruiting teachers into the party and young men into the army. A free political climate, she says, only makes her job harder.

“La Prensa has brought more disadvantages than advantages,” she said. “Its ideological bombardment is tremendous. It confuses many people.”

Comandante Wheelock, as intense as President Reagan is affable, tells of a disturbing dream he had of visiting the White House. In the dream, Reagan held out his hand in greeting. But rather than shake it, Wheelock gave the President a photograph of his children, hoping that would move Reagan to end the Contra war.

In the dream, Reagan took the comandante on a tour of the White House, which looked strangely like Wheelock’s old high school. He stopped to open a mysterious door and beckoned his guest inside. Just as Wheelock realized it was an outhouse, Reagan gave him a shove. When Wheelock climbed out of the filthy hole, Reagan was out of reach.

“He was standing behind a window laughing,” Wheelock said. “It was a nightmare.”

Dwelling on Archenemy

Wheelock tells this dream to show how constantly the Sandinistas dwell on their archenemy, the man who waged the Contra war and vowed to make them “cry uncle.” The Sandinistas view Reagan as the latest in a long line of Yanqui villains; their struggle is to end more than a century of U.S. meddling in Nicaragua and ensure the revolution’s survival.

Without that relationship in mind, the Sandinistas’ achievements or intentions cannot be fully measured. The war has sapped their resources, delayed their plans for social transformation and pushed their policies in contradictory directions. In the name of neutralizing aggression, they have retreated from socialist economics and gagged conservative news media.

The hope of the Arias peace plan--that the conflict could be settled among Nicaraguans--was frustrated by pressure on all sides. Contra leaders balked at a final peace pact that offered them a chance to help write rules to ensure fair elections. They were swayed by the Sandinistas’ limitations on amnesty, insistence on controlling the army and harassment of the opposition. Not least, Contra hard-liners were encouraged by the Reagan Administration’s refusal to abandon military force as an option.

Where the Sandinistas will lead Nicaragua after Reagan leaves office in January will thus depend largely on the policies of his successor. Ortega is again insisting that only a security agreement between Washington and his government can end the war and test its commitment to political freedom.

As long as they feel the threat of military force, especially one backed by the United States, the one-time Sandinista guerrillas insist on keeping a tight leash on political foes at home. Remove that threat, the Sandinista peacemakers claim, and room for dissent will grow.