“Heirs of Sandino: The Nicaraguan Revolution and the U.S.-Nicaragua Solidarity Movement” by Héctor Perla Jr.

Reference: Latin American Perspectives by way of Academia.edu

The 1979 triumph of the Sandinista Revolution and the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s resistance of U.S. efforts to oust it from power inspired thousands of individuals from all over the world to support Nicaragua’s struggle for self-determination. One of the most important constituencies to take up the Sandinista cause was a significant portion of the U.S. public. What moved this collection of individuals and organizations to join a movement to oppose their own government’s policy and even identify with the Sandinista cause? To date Latin Americanists have neglected this movement and the role that Nicaraguans, both in their home country and in the United States, played in its rise and success. A transnational approach to the movement’s origins and its relationship to Nicaraguan revolutionary social forces allows one to understand it as a it really was: a transnational social movement in which U.S. and Nicaraguan citizens acted together for a common purpose.

Since the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine, U.S. politicians have justified their nation’s policy toward Latin America using the discourse of liberty, but in practice its policies have been quite different. This is especially true in Nicaragua, a country that stands out for the number of times it has been invaded, the length of time that it has spent under direct U.S. occupation, and for the fierce resistance to these occupations that it has generated (Walker, 2003). Starting with the resistance against the filibusterer William Walker and continuing with August César Sandino’s resistance to the U.S. invasion force in the 1930s, Nicaraguans’ dogged opposition to U.S. aggression has inspired a great many non-Nicaraguans to take up their cause. Most recently, the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979 and the subsequent resistance of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista Front for National Liberation–FSLN) to U.S. efforts to oust it from power throughout the 1980s inspired thousands of individuals from all over the world to join Nicaraguans in their struggle for self-determination.

One of the most important constituencies to take up the Sandinista cause was a significant portion of the U.S. public1 In the United States, this movement became known as the Nicaragua solidarity movement.2 According to Reagan administration officials and key congressional leaders of the time, the grassroots pressure on Congress and the constant flow of information from this movement to the public were the principal reasons the administration’s Central America policy was constrained (Sobel, 1993; 2001). What moved these individuals and organizations to oppose their government’s policy and often even identify with the Sandinista cause? Answering this question requires adopting a transnational framework of analysis, which allows us to take into account the participation of Nicaraguans both in their home country and in the United States.

This paper is divided into six sections. The first section provides a brief review of the literature on Latin American social movements. The second explores the transnational origins of the Nicaragua solidarity movement, and the following section documents the movement’s diffusion around the United States. The fourth section traces the strategies and objectives for which the movement mobilized. The fifth section briefly describes the Nicaragua solidarity movement’s development during the postrevolutionary period. The final section offers an analysis of the movement’s achievements.


Because of the region’s long history under oppressive dictatorial, and exclusionary regimes, Latin Americanists have a strong tradition of studying the region’s popular movement activism outside the realm of formal politics. These investigations have ranged from studies of union strikes, student protests, and religious activism to struggles for women’s and indigenous rights and armed revolutions. Latin Americanists have sought to answer questions such as why peasants rebel and what kind of peasant is most like to rebel (Wolf, 1969; Paige, 1975; Diskin, 1983; Seligson, 1996; Wood, 2003) and to explain the role of women in revolutions and the development of the women’s rights movement (Jelin, 1990; Bayard de Volo, 2001; Kampwirth, 2002). Additionally, they have studies the role of religion in revolution, the rise of liberation theology, and the impact of that movement on revolutionary mobilization (Norget, 1997; Bonpane, 2000; Martin, 2003). Scholars have also explored why some revolutionary movements are successful while others are not and attempted to uncover the causes of revolution (Booth, 1991; Wickham-Crowley, 1992; Brockett, 2005; Booth and Walker, 1993; Selbin, 1993). In sum, Latin Americanists have studied various cases of contentious political mobilization by marginalized social groups.3

However, until recently Latin Americanists have not explored the roles played by Latin Americans–either in their home countries or as migrants residing in the United States–in the transnational solidarity movements that arose in opposition to dictatorships or in support of Latin American revolutionary struggles (see Green, 2003, and Perla, 2008, for exceptions). As a result, the U.S.-Central American peace and solidarity movement has not been understood as a Latin American movement, nor has it been studied by Latin Americanists in spite of its significance and the potential wealth of information and insight it offers. In fact, the few studies that have explored the movement have been conducted by U.S. social movement scholars who have focused almost exclusively on the role of North Americans in the creation of the movement (Smith, 1996; Erickson-Nepstad, 2004). Indeed, Latin Americanists have ignored it, failing to confront the myths that the NIcaraguans controlled the movement and that they were simply its beneficiaries rather than active protagonists in its creation and growth. In this article, I challenge both these myths by delineating a middle ground between them. I contend that the Nicaragua solidarity movement was neither controlled by Nicaraguan (much less Soviet or Cuban) revolutionaries nor solely a U.S. domestic movement.4 Rather, it was a transnational social movement in which U.S. and Central American citizens acted together for a common purpose.5


How can we best understand the origins of the solidarity movement with Nicaragua? To date right-wing politicians and pundits have labeled it a Sandinista front and its participants as naïve dupes of astute communist manipulators (Hoffman, 1986; Reagan, 1989; see also comments by Abrams, Reich, and Fox in Sobel, 1993). Serious historical research on the movement has shown that this is inaccurate (Gosse, 1988; 1996). At the same time, social scientists who have studies the movement have erred on the other side, describing it as if it were solely a domestic movement (Smith, 1996).6 As a result, they have neglected the purposeful role that Nicaraguans played in the movement’s rise and success. Instead of trying to understand the Nicaragua solidarity movement through the lens of a nation-state-centered paradigm, I propose a transnational framework of analysis that takes the nexus between U.S. and Nicaraguan civil and political societies as the unit of analysis. This shift enables us to see the movement’s origins and its relations with revolutionary social forces in Nicaragua and to treat as what it really was–a transnational social movement in which U.S. and Central American citizens acted together synergistically to challenge U.S. policy.

The Nicaragua solidarity movement was a heterogeneous collection of groups ranging from nonprofit, campus, church, and community-based organizations, foundations, and ad hoc committees to national-level organizations and transnational advocacy networks. By 1986 organizations challenging U.S. policy toward Central American numbered more than 2,000 and were located throughout the United States (Smith, 1996: 387).7 What unified them was that they all challenged President Ronald Reagan’s Central American policy in at least one of three ways: (1) opposing that policy, especially the financing of Nicaraguan Contras, (2) providing material, monetary, technical, and personal aid to the people negatively affected by the policy, and (3) challenging and refuting the administration’s framing of the problems and U.S. participation in Central America.

The evolution of the grassroots movement opposing U.S. policy toward Nicaragua took place in three stages. The movement’s first phase lasted from the early 1970s until the early 1980s. It was dominated by grassroots efforts to build opposition to the Somoza regime and support for the social forces organized to bring an end to the dictatorship, specifically the FSLN. It also included the movement’s effort to get the U.S. administration to isolate the dictator and, after the revolutionary triumph, to encourage amicable relations between Nicaragua and the United States. The movement’s second phase began in 1981 with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan and ended in 1990 with the Sandinistas’ electoral defeat. This phase coincided with the U.S. government’s increasing hostility to the FSLN’s revolutionary process, beginning with economic and political pressures and culminating in the Contra War. It was also characterized by increased social movement activism and the growth of public opposition to U.S. Central American policy. The third phase began in 1990 and continues to the present.9

The roots of what came to be called the Nicaragua solidarity movement lie in the political activism of Central American immigrants in the United States. The role of these Nicaraguan immigrant-organizers was fundamental to the initial growth of the movement. In the Nicaraguan case, many of thee early members of the Central American diaspora came to the United States fleeing the repressive Somoza regime. Beginning immediately after the December 1972 Managua earthquake and continuing through the 1970s and early 1980s, Nicaraguan exiles mobilized to protest against the corruption and brutality of the Somoza regime and to oppose U.S. support of the dictatorship. The earliest of these organizations was the Comité Cívico Latinoamericano Pro-Nicaragua en los Estados Unidos (Comité Cívico), which formed in San Franicsco. Because many of its founders were poets and artists, much of its early organizing had a strong cultural dimension. Its activities included helping found the historical Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, which was inaugurated by Nicaragua’s revolutionary poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal and would go on to play an important role as a counterpublic space for the Nicaragua solidarity movement (Murguia, 2002). Among the other early organizations formed by the Nicaraguan immigrant community were Casa Nicaragua (various chapters), NICA (various chapters), the Washington area Nicaragua Solidarity Organization, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Nicaragua, and Los Muchachos de DC (Hamilton and Chinchilla, 2001: 129-130; Hoyt, 2003). Originally, these activists organized locally within the Nicaraguan and Latina/o communities, seeking to generate awareness of the deteriorating political climate in their home country and the negative impact of U.S support for Somoza on the Nicaraguan people. However, they quickly began attracting the suppot of the progressive North Americans (Gosse, 1988: 19-20).

By the late 1970s, these activists had organized various local Nicaraguan committees around the United States, most of which had relations with the FSLN. An example of this was the National Solidarity Week for Nicaragua and El Salvador that took place in Washington, D.C., in February 1980. The week’s activities culminated with visits from two representatives of the Sandinista government, Noel González from the foreign ministry and Sayda Hernández from the Asociación de Mujeres Nicaragüenses Luisa Amanda Espinoza (National Association of Nicaraguan Women–AMNLAE) (Valente, 1980). After the Sandinista triumph, many progressive Nicaraguans returned home to help build the revolution, but those who remained active in the United States worked to raise money and support for the revolution and its literacy campaign. They also began trying to get North Americans to travel to Nicaragua to observe and participate and then return to the United States to share with others what they had seen (Gosse, 1988).

The first nationwide solidarity organization to incorporate North Americans at the national level was the National Network in Solidarity with the Nicaraguan people (later renamed the Nicaragua Network). It was formed shortly before the triumph of the revolution. According to the Nicaragua Network’s national cocoordinator, Katherine Hoyt, not only were a number of the organization’s founding member committees made up of Nicaraguans living in the United States but its founding conference was held in direct response to an appeal for help from the Nicaraguan social movement (Hoyt, 2003): “In February of 1979, the Network was founded to support the popular struggle to overthrow the 45 year U.S.-supported Somoza family dictatorship, and after the July 19 victory, to support the efforts of the Sandinista Revolution to provide a better life for the nation’s people.”10 By 1980, the Nicaragua Network had grown to incorporate about 50 member committees, eventually growing to over 350 committees across the United States (Chuck Kaufman, personal communication, October 10, 2006). During this time, the Nicaragua Network’s major projects included supporting Nicaragua’s literacy campaign and organizing national speaking tours fro Sandinista representatives (Gosse, 1988:20-22).

The movement’s second phase coincided with the hardening of U.S. policy against the Sandinistas. Since early 1982, the Reagan administration launched efforts to organize, fund, and train a rebel force with the objective of overthrowing the FSLN government.11 While the Contras, as this rebel force came to be called, could not directly defeat the Ejército Popular Sandinista (Sandinista People’s Army), they could and did inflict great suffering on the Nicaraguan people. In this context, a renewed call went out from Nicaragua informing North Americans of the tragic impact of their government’s policy and asking them to come and observe the reality for themselves and to take a stand against intervention. At a 1982 solidarity conference in Managua, Sandinista Vice President Sergio Ramírez urged the country’s intellectuals to “make contact with U.S. writers, scientists, artists, and academics at once and urge them to protest any kind of intervention in Central America or the Caribbean” (Ramírez, 1985: 7). The FSLN leadership hoped that allowing U.S. citizens to witness firsthand the effects of U.S. policy on the average Nicaraguan would move them to return home to denounce its negative impact (Griffin-Nolan, 1991: 27-28).  In this regard, Sandinista efforts were extremely successful, with more than 100,000 U.S. citizens traveling to Nicaragua by 1986 (Smith, 1996: 158).

By the mid-1980s Witness for Peace, a large national organization, had begun working to influence U.S. policy toward Nicaragua. At the same time, two new nationwide coalitions, the Pledge of Resistance and Quest for Peace, had also been created to challenge Reagan’s Central American policy.12 The Pledge of Resistance was a network designed to put out an immediate and massive call for civil disobedience in case of an escalation of the Central American conflict by the Reagan administration. Quest for Peace was a coalition aimed at providing material support directly to the victims of U.S. Contra policy. These organizations became among the most effective vehicles for creating opposition to the administration’s Nicaragua policy.

However, they differed from previous organizations in that they did not work directly with the FSLN. Witness for Peace coordinated its efforts with progressive Nicaraguan religious organizations such as the Comité Evangélicopara Ayuda al Desarrollo (Evangelical Committee for Aid to Development–CEPAD). Similarly, Quest for Peace worked with the John XXIII Institute for Social Justice, based at the Central American University in Managua, provided assistance to rural victims of Contra attacks (Griffin-Nolan, 1991:28)13. Beyond this, these organizations differed from earlier ones in that they were not explicitly solidarity but rather peace or anti-intervention organizations. In other words, they did not support the Sandinistas but simply opposed U.S. Nicaraguan policy (Griffin-Nolan, 2001: 289).

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