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The Carter Doctrine, Part II: Nicaragua Revisited
May 14, 2007

I wrote last week of the Carter Administration's failed attempt to keep the Marxist Sandinistas from acquiring power in Nicaragua during 1979. Once the Sandinistas and their more moderate/conservative allies in the business community did assume power, however, Carter and his staff had to figure out how to deal with the fait accompli.

There were tensions both within the Sandinista coalition and the Carter Administration concerning how each country should address the other.

The Sandinistas had a jaundiced view of America, and considered any promises of a hands-off policy as inherently suspicious given the historical support the United States had provided to successive repressive government in Nicaragua, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. But the business community regarded America far more favorably, and the Sandinistas needed the private sector leaders for both domestic and international legitimacy, just as the business leaders needed the Sandinistas military might to unseat the dictator Somoza, whom they recognized as both a political and a commercial menace, freezing them out of the government and encroaching upon their commercial ventures.

The resulting Government of National Reconstruction therefore pursued a social democratic model, not out of allegiance to that form of government, but because it represented the best compromise between the inherently socialist "popular project" sought by the Sandinistas—including radical redistribution of wealth and income, agrarian reform, free education and health care, a national literacy project, and other public policies based on the Cuban model—and the capitalist policies preferred by the commercial and financial sectors.

Strains between the two camps appeared almost instantly, and were exacerbated by the fact that real power resided not with the Junta of Government or the cabinet, on which the business community had several representatives, but the Sandinista-dominated National Directorate. Moderates on the Directorate, such as Daniel and Humberto Ortega, sought a compromise with business leaders, asking for their allegiance in a national development program in exchange for a respect for private property and the right to make a modest profit. Hard-liners such as Tomas Borge and Bayardo Arce, however, mistrusted the middle class, considering the bourgeoisie a class enemy. They wanted to build a socialist state in the Cuban model. Ironically, it was Fidel Castro himself who dissuaded the Sandinistas from pursuing such a course. He advised them not to repeat his mistakes, and told them to avoid a confrontation with the United States, maintain good relations with the church, and preserve the private sector.

In the power struggle between the Sandinistas and their more conservative power sharers, the Sandinistas clearly had the upper hand. They had the power of the military, forming a national army out of their guerilla forces; they had significant political power, due to their "mass organizations" of workers, peasants, women, and students; and they had the ineffable legitimacy of having deposed a broadly hated dictator. They never outlawed opposing political parties, but they saw themselves as a political vanguard that would transform Nicaraguan society. The business sector was urged to join in this program, receiving tax credits and cheap credit for compliance, facing appropriation of assets for defiance.

The business community had its own divisions, between those willing to accept a social democratic program in conjunction with the Sandinistas, and those who saw them as unrepentant Communists, who would have to be overthrown. Neither faction, however, was willing to accept a subservient position in a one-party state. Though fragmented into a number of sub-factions, they knew they could use their economic and political position to dictate foreign perceptions of the regime's legitimacy, and to wring at least a few concessions from the Sandinistas. Most importantly, they stayed in-country and tried to work out a political compromise, unlike their Cuban predecessors, who fled to Miami after Castro's victory.

On the American side, policy makers were split between those who sought to make the best of a bad situation, hoping to keep it from getting worse, and those who intrinsically distrusted the Sandinistas, and fully expected them to eventually throw off their moderate garb and turn Nicaragua into a Marxist state in the Cuban model.

Both sides saw their best interests served by cordial if not exactly friendly relations. The Sandinistas saw the need for American assistance in rebuilding the shattered economy, and knew European and other foreign investors would follow the American lead. Carter hoped to salvage a foreign policy debacle by saving Nicaragua, even if he'd bungled his succession of power strategy, and he hoped to avoid the Cuban experienced of 1959-1960, when American intransigence helped push Castro solidly into the Communist sphere.

Or, as one senior State Department official put it: "The Sandinistas are wearing a moderate mask. Our job is to nail it on."

America provided emergency relief to help those displaced by the war, and additional economic development aid. Carter delayed submitting his biggest aid package to Congress out of a desire to avoid right-wing opposition by showing the Sandinistas were not going to swing Nicaragua radically left as soon as it could. When the aid package ultimately passed, however, it included amendments from Conservative Republicans to require suspension of assistance if the Sandinistas engaged in a consistent pattern of human rights abuses, aided or abetted acts of violence in other countries, allowed Cuban or Soviet troops to be stationed in Nicaragua, violated the rights of union to organize and operate, or violated the rights of free speech and press. Even then, the bill passed the House by a mere five votes. Its greatest lobbyists were members of the Nicaraguan business community, who argued that without the aid their economic and political situation would become untenable.

Right-wingers at the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency believed the Sandinistas were directly involved in arming the Salvadoran guerillas, citing evidence that arms were moving through Nicaragua, and concluding that their was strong evidence that this arming was official policy. Adherents of a more moderate policy noted that arms were also moving to the Salvadoran opposition through Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Honduras, and no one was claiming these governments were directly involved.

Ultimately, a policy of guarded optimism won out, and the aid flowed to Nicaragua (albeit belatedly). No one in the Carter administration expected Nicaragua to sever its ties with either Cuba or the Salvadoran rebels, given the support they had given during the insurrection, and it was broadly recognized that the political coalition in Managua was inherently unstable. Carter hoped to mitigate the conflicts between the various parties from boiling over, which would permit the Sandinistas to clamp down on pluralism in the name of protecting the revolution.

And the policy succeeded, as long as it was permitted to proceed, something that ended with Reagan's succession to power in January, 1981. Although Carter severely misjudged the balance of political forces inside Nicaragua prior to Somoza's overthrow, and seriously underestimated popular opposition to the dictator, he was able to prevent a radical leftward turn in Nicaragua by Sandinista hard-liners.

Depending on one's political world view, either this was a guarded success, showing the inherent wisdom of Carter's resolute attempt to forge a moderate foreign policy in the region emphasizing pluralism and human rights; or it was the last throes of a muddled and ill-conceived liberal folly that was gratefully ended once a Republican administration took over the White House, which would pursue a policy of rollback, not appeasement. Either way, relations between the United States and Nicaragua became openly and avowedly hostile with the rise to power of Ronald Reagan.

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