The policy of the United States towards the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua consisted of political and economic destabilization measures in order to create regime change. The destabilization policy was structured in two forms. The first was militarized aggression which came in the form of the counter-revolutionary forces, or contra, and Central Intelligence Agency agents and paid mercenaries. The second was economic war through the use of sanctions and United States organized loan blockades. The state the United States tried to destabilized was a Marxist-Nationalist regime known as the Sandinista National Liberation front, or Sandinistas as they are commonly known.
The Sandinistas were made up of Nicaraguan revolutionaries who came from a diverse background of race and socioeconomic class. The Sandinista movement was officially organized in 1961 and idealized itself after the Sandino Rebellion against the United States Marines from 1927 to 1933. The Sandinistas were opposed to United States imperialism and the oppressive regimes of the Somoza dynasty. Anastasio Somoza, one of the last Washington backed dictators in Central America, was the de facto president of Nicaragua throughout the last twelve years of the Nicaraguan revolution. Since the 1930s, Somoza’s aristocratic family had long held political, military, and economic power in Nicaragua. The Somoza dynasty was propped up by both United States corporate interests and United States military and economic aid. United States corporations and intervention was seen as an imperialist threat by many Nicaraguans, who had lost their land, were predominately poor, and made up the country’s majority.
The relationship between Washington and the Somoza family is long and complex. The two parties exploited each other for different reasons. Washington needed a strongman to keep Latin America’s leftists in check, while the Somoza family needed support to keep their neo-monarchy from being deposed by millions of their disaffected and resentful citizens. Anastasio Somoza Garcia, father of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was the first of the Somoza family to rule Nicaragua. Somoza held office from 1936 to 1956. His greatest benefit to the United States was his position against Nicaraguan peasants and indigenous communists. Washington policy makers knew that they would not be able to fight communism in Latin America without the strongman Somoza. During the Cold War, the Somoza dynasty was viewed, by Washington to be an asset in the struggle to contain communism from popularizing throughout Latin America. The same Washington policy would be used fifteen years later with Somoza Garcia’s youngest legitimate son, Somoza Debayle. Somoza Garcia’s overly enthusiastic support for oppressing Latin America’s anti-communist activities, notably in Guatemala, was met with discouragement by Washington. However, the CIA championed Somoza’s cause.
Meanwhile, disaffected youth were propagating Marxism and Nationalism throughout Nicaragua. Their struggle took on a revolutionary identity supported by an experience of fighting for liberation from a totalitarian regime, propped up by United States dollars. After nearly two decades of struggle, in the form of guerrilla insurgency, the Sandinistas were able to oust president Somoza from power. After the Sandinista government was securely in place by 1980, President Jimmy Carter tried to show the Sandinistas that the United States was willing to accept the outcome of the Nicaraguan revolution. Carter issued aid to show his support and was ready to continue diplomatic relations, so long as the Sandinistas would live up to United States approved economic standards, a policy that Sandinistas would not accept. The United States viewed the new Sandinista government as a communist threat to the whole Western Hemisphere, and would have to be dealt with for eleven years under three American presidents.
In Nicaragua, the Catholic Church was just as influential as the Somoza family, the United States, and the Sandinistas. The church did not ally with the big three players in Nicaraguan politics. The church was critical of all three, but favored a Sandinista role in government, because of the widespread popularity of the Sandinistas. One of those critical voices came from Fernando Cardenal, a Jesuit priest who attributed the death and oppression during 1979 to President Carter’s support of Somoza. Fernando Cardenal accused Carter of hypocrisy and stated that “Carter’s human rights is simply moral, ethical and Christian, but he doesn’t follow through.”
Jimmy Carter would be the first president to come to terms with a noncompliant Nicaragua. Carter’s policy towards the new Sandinista regime was passive at first. Carter intended to continue to send aid to Nicaragua so long as the Sandinistas fell back into line, but the Sandinistas refused to obey their northern neighbor who had bankrolled the Somoza dynasty. Carter made the decision to cut aid to Nicaragua in 1981 when his administration was informed that Sandinistas were aiding a leftist resistance faction in El Salvador. Early Sandinista policy to El Salvador’s revolutionary communist movement was one which differed little from the way the United States aided and abetted armed resistance movements in other countries. Sandinistas showed solidarity to the Salvadoran communists by offering aid. Policies such as this sparked fears, of the communist domino theory, in Washington.
Weeks after Carter cut aid to Nicaragua, the USSR, Libya, and Cuba began offering much needed assistance in the form of loans and wheat. In a sense, Carter pushed the poverty stricken country to the communist camp. Carter’s policy was counterproductive in the short-term, because Nicaragua strayed further away from Washington. Another policy Carter had towards Nicaragua was to support opposition figures such as Jose Francisco Cardenal. Jose Cardenal was a leading figure in Nicaragua’s bourgeoisie class and would go on to lead paramilitary groups against the Sandinista government. Unlike President Ronald Reagan, Carter did not have a policy of directly funding armed resistance groups. However, Carter did approve of the CIA funding Jose Cardenal’s democratic activities, such as forming political parties.
One December 1, 1981, President Ronald Reagan declared a secret war on Nicaragua. In his secret declaration Reagan stated that his administration will “Support and conduct… paramilitary operations against” the Latin American country. Reagan’s actions towards Nicaragua exemplified his doctrine of spreading democracy and American values, even if it meant supporting state terrorism. Reagan went on to state that covert operations to destabilize Nicaragua “is important to the national security of the United States…” However, spreading democracy is exactly what the Sandinistas did when they held Nicaragua’s first free elections in 1984 and won the popular vote.
In 1981 the United States began to arm and organize a counter revolutionary campaign to overthrow the Sandinistas. The counter revolutionary force is commonly called the contra. The contra was not made up of a single paramilitary group, but rather loosely collective factions of paramilitary groups. The contras were made up of Somoza’s former National Guard. They were stationed on the border of Nicaragua on the Honduras side, although some of them held secret locations within Nicaragua. By being stationed in Honduras, a country allied to the United States and a supposedly neutral country, the contras were able to safely operate their campaign. By 1983, the contras were able to secure at least $100 million for their campaign to destabilize Nicaragua.
Many of the contras were trained in Honduras, by agents of the United States, and in the United States. The contra forces who trained in the United States were most likely trained in Florida, where the leading bourgeoisie Nicaraguans lived in exile, and in the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. The School of the Americas has a long history of training Latin American police and paramilitary groups, who have known to become the leading members of organized death squads in Columbia, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
From 1982 to 1990 contra cross border raids into Nicaragua caused tens of thousands of Nicaraguans to voluntarily flee and sometimes have their entire villages uprooted and transferred to a more secure location away from the Honduras border. Thousands of innocent women and children were killed, raped, and sometimes taken hostage during these raids. Contra forces razed farms and villages by setting them ablaze and destroyed agricultural equipment. Farming became a national priority and thousands of inexperienced youth were encouraged to show support by volunteering to lend their time as farm hands.
One example of the devastation caused by the contra terrorist attacks was the disruption of the 1985 coffee harvest. The coffee harvest was disrupted due to continual unannounced attacks on non-combative state and cooperative farms, many of which were being farmed by a largely student population. Contra forces attacked trucks and farmers in order to keep Nicaragua from capitalizing on one of its main exports. The 1985 coffee harvest attacks succeeded in costing Nicaragua at least a fourth of the harvest.
When contras were not believed to be capable of executing operations more complex than terrorizing peasant farmers the CIA, sometimes directly backed by the United States Military, did the heavy lifting. Between 1983 and 1984 the United States Special Operations Forces, CIA and CIA paid mercenaries were given a more decisive role in destabilizing Nicaragua. Their role consisted of destroying and disabling refineries, bridges, and harbors. These operations were accredited to the contras in order for the United States to not look as involved as it really was. One joint operation in particular, between CIA paid mercenaries and the United States Military, caused damaging relations between Nicaragua and those nations continuing to trade with it. The joint operation consisted of mining Nicaraguan ports in order to deter trade. Ships from the USSR and four other nations were damaged.
In 1986, the contras were approved by the United States Congress to receive an additional $100 million to the money they had already been receiving from the CIA. Around this same time the contras were further supplied by the United States with the most “advanced anti-aircraft technology” in the region. The surface to air missiles dealt a serious blow to the ability of the National Army of Nicaragua to defend its borders from the United States backed insurgency. From 1986 to 1988, the contra war cost the Sandinista government 55% of its budget. The amount of resources committed to defend Nicaragua from contra and CIA terrorism made it impossible for any economic growth in Nicaragua.
The United States also placed harsh sanctions on Nicaragua in order to deprive the country of everything from medical supplied and food, to industrial equipment and foreign loans. One policy that the Reagan administration administered was to fiscally starve out Nicaraguans until they saw the error of their ways and fall back into line. One example of the fiscal starvation policy was the 90% decrease of sugar the United States imported from Nicaragua. The reduction of Nicaragua’s sugar quota was unexpected but not a total shock to the Sandinistas. Reagan’s policy of placing complex sanctions on Nicaragua also became costly to many consumers in the United States. Reagan’s policy toward Nicaragua was able to win another small battle which further starved Nicaraguans and their economy. Between 1981 and 1982, Reagan conservatives were able to gain the support of the totalitarian military regimes of Argentina and Chile in order to kill a small loan request from Nicaragua to the Inter-American Development Bank. The loan was going to be used to purchase “50 fishing boats to replace the Somoza-owned fleet”, which left after Somoza fled the country with much of the treasury.
The United States deterred private investment in Nicaragua by downgrading its credit rating. The Reagan administration had no real reason for this action, because Nicaragua had been paying off its debts on time. Reagan further attempted to crush Nicaragua’s fragile agricultural economy by swaying the World Bank. The World Bank, an institution heavily influenced by the United States, followed the Reagan line of deterring investment. The United States was so influential in the World Bank that no loans to Nicaragua could even be considered because of the amount of votes the United States held within the bank.
The Reagan policy towards the Nicaraguan elections in 1984 was to encourage opposition figures to boycott the elections, and to encourage opposition figures to submit a list of impossible demands in order to run in the elections. The policy of boycotting the elections worked to Washington’s benefit by legitimizing Sandinista rule. By keeping opposition figures out of the election and legitimizing the Sandinista government, Washington could continue its Cold War crusade against Nicaragua. Reagan’s election policy sent perplexing signals to opposition figures in Nicaragua, which caused some figures to boycott the elections while others became critical of Reagan’s policies.
When George W. H. Bush came into office, he did not want to risk his administration getting caught up in a situation similar to his predecessor. Reagan had been getting caught up in a seemingly endless war which escalated in the media due to the Iran-Contra scandal. Bush stopped funding the contras and agreed to disarm them after having a cease-fire in 1988. However, Bush’s policy of isolating Nicaragua followed up where Reagan’s policy left off. Although the Reagan administration was not able to create regime change in Nicaragua quick enough, the Bush administration succeeded where Reagan could not. For the first year of Bush’s presidency the only thing the Bush administration did was continue Reagan’s policy of economic sanctions and wait for the outcome. Bush had to wait only two years when a second round of free elections came in 1990. This second round of elections was more favorable to Washington and the embargo ended along with funding for the contras. Although the Sandinistas did not win the popular vote they still had support of 40% of the country. Bush knew that the Reagan policy of regime change in Nicaragua could not continue through the highly controversial funding of the contras. The Bush administration looked to a less hostile path of regime change in Nicaragua. Bush policy planners believed that elections would prove more beneficial to their cause. The goal of the elections, from Washington’s point of view, was to “preoccupy the Sandinistas”, and encourage internal opposition.
The 1990 elections did not solve Nicaragua’s problems, but the elections did end Washington hostility towards Nicaragua. Historian Philip J. Williams argues that the elections were a setback for democratization in Nicaragua. He states that “maintaining liberal democracy may block progress toward the construction of popular democracy”, because “liberal democracy tends to freeze into place the political and economic status quo, thereby limiting the opportunities for meaningful participation.”
In conclusion, contra attacks alone were not the sole cause of the Sandinista regime failure. Repressive economic sanctions together with relentless guerrilla terrorist attacks ultimately led to a second round of free elections in 1990, in which the Sandinistas could not maintain their popularity. After years of civil war with the Somoza regime and fighting a terrorist insurgency, most Nicaraguans were ready to accept defeat if it meant that they could live a more peaceful and prosperous life. Between the terrorist actions of the contras and unyielding sanctions, many Nicaraguans started to oppose the actions of the Sandinista government. However, not all of their decent was organic; some of it was manufactured by the CIA. As dissent spread and opposition to the Sandinistas grew more popular, the Sandinista government practiced censorship and brutal crackdowns which only made them more unpopular. The United States policy towards Nicaragua succeeded and a pro-United States president was elected in 1990.
 Paul Coe Clark, The United States and Somoza, 1933-1956: a Revisionist Look (Westport, CT.: Praeger Publishers, 1992), 140.
 Knut Walter, The Regime of Anastasio Somoza, 1936-1956 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 240.
 Michael D. Gambone, Eisenhower, Somoza, and the Cold War in Nicaragua, 1953-1961 (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997), 89.
 Phil Ryan, The Fall and Rise of the Market in Sandinista Nicaragua (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996), 124.
 Bernard Diederich, Somoza & the Legacy of U. S. Involvement in Central America (New York: Marcus Wiener, 1989), 236.
 William M Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream: Us Economic Sanctions Against Sandinista Nicaragua,” Third World Quarterly 17, no. 2 (June, 1996): 330.
 Ryan, The Fall and Rise of the Market in Sandinista Nicaragua, 10.
Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream”, 331.
 Robert Kagan, A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990 (New York: Free Press, 1996), 152.
 President Ronald Reagan, NSC/ICS 33340, Support and conduct…, 1 Dec. 1981, National Security Archive.
 Reagan, NSC/ICS 33340
 Carlos M. Vilas, The Sandinista Revolution: National Liberation and Social Transformation in Central America (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), 163.
 Vilas, The Sandinista Revolution, 152.
 Vilas, The Sandinista Revolution, 261.
 Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream”, 341.
 Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream”, 340-41.
 Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream”, 341.
 Ryan, The Fall and Rise of the Market in Sandinista Nicaragua, 199.
 Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream”, 342.
 Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream”, 337.
 Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream”, 333.
 Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream”, 332.
 Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream”, 336.
 Philip J Williams, “Elections and Democratization in Nicaragua: The 1990 Elections in Perspective,”Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 32, no. 4 (Winter, 1990): 16-17.
 Kagan, A Twilight Struggle. 625.
 Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream”, 343.
 Kagan, A Twilight Struggle. 637.
 Williams, “Elections and Democratization in Nicaragua”, 15.
 Leograde, “Making the Economy Scream”, 329.