Civil War: Nicaragua (1978-1979 and 1980-1989)

Marc V Simon. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


Nicaragua’s geographic location in the middle of Central America has magnified the importance of conflicts within the country to its neighbors and the United States. The two civil wars discussed here—one in the 1970s and one in the 1980s—had domestic roots but were heavily influenced by these other countries. The civil war that resulted in the 1979 overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship had its beginnings in the early 1960s when the Sandinista rebels first organized. The Sandinistas and Somoza owed their origins to the U.S. occupation, which, except for a few months in 1925, lasted from 1912 to 1933. The civil war between the Contra rebels and the Sandinista government, which lasted from 1980 to 1989, was largely a result of U.S. policies aimed at overthrowing the Sandinistas. This article provides a summary of both civil wars, with emphasis on the causes of the conflicts and the factors that contributed to the rather unique outcomes of each. For convenience, throughout the article the first civil war is referred to as the Sandinista revolution and the second as the Contra war.

Country Background

Before the civil wars, Nicaragua was a poor country of 3 million people (Defronzo 1991, 189) plagued by a repressive, authoritarian government. With the rest of Central America, it obtained independence from Spain in the 1820s. Afterward, its politics were dominated by elite families centered in Leon (the liberal party) and Granada (the conservative party). The United States was interested in the country mainly as a possible location of a transisthmian canal, for the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua covered all but fifteen miles between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Most inhabitants of Nicaragua lived on the Pacific side of the country and had a Spanish or mixed ethnic heritage; on the east side of the country lived a small minority of Native Americans and descendents of former African slaves.

The first Somoza (Anastasio Somoza Garcia) came to power based on his control of the National Guard, a military body organized and trained by the United States to facilitate U.S. withdrawal from occupation in 1933. After 1926, during the second half of the U.S. occupation, a nationalist rebel group organized by Augusto Cesar Sandino fought to oust the U.S. marines and the National Guard. After the United States withdrew in 1933, Sandino was assassinated by members of the National Guard, and his rebellion died out. Somoza ruled the country until he was assassinated by a young poet in 1956. After this, power passed to his two sons—first to Luis Somoza Debayle until his death in 1967, then to Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The Somoza family used its position to accumulate enormous wealth. The Somozas pursued policies designed to repress and buy off their domestic rivals, and they sought the unqualified support of the United States as their external guarantor of power. Ultimately, the poverty of ordinary Nicaraguans, combined with the greed, corruption, and repression of the dictatorship, created the basis for a revolution led by the Sandinistas, a rebel group with historical and ideological roots in Sandino’s earlier rebellion.

Conflict Background

The first civil war under consideration, the duration of which is often listed as 1978-1979, had it origins in a guerrilla movement founded in 1961 (Booth 1985; Christian 1985; Crawley 1984; Diederich 1981; Walker 1986). The Sandinista rebels sought to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship and control the government. The conflict had an ideological component in that the rebels supported Marxist-oriented policies that aimed to redistribute wealth, whereas Somoza was staunchly anticommunist and promoted an elite-dominated market economy. There was little, if any, ethnic dimension in the conflict. In addition to the tradition of Sandino, the Sandinistas were inspired by the example of Fidel Castro, whose guerrillas overthrew the government of Cuba in 1959. Until the final stages of the conflict in 1978-1979 there was little intervention except for military support provided to the Somoza regime by the United States. The Sandinista forces grew rapidly from about 500 in 1978 to a final 1979 level of about 5,000 (DeFronzo 1991, 202). Somozas National Guard had approximately 7,500 troops in September 1978 and had grown to 11,000 by March 1979 (Pastor 2002, 101). Casualty estimates from the Sandinista war vary, but a conservative approximation is 30,000 dead.

The Contra war from 1980 to 1989 was similar in that the Contra rebels aimed to overthrow the Sandinista government and, at least initially, restore the old order. This was also a classic Cold War stalemate, with the United States supporting the anti-Communist Contras and the Soviet Union and Cuba among the main supporters of the Sandinista government. The Contra forces were formed from elements of the National Guard who fled after the Sandinista victory. With U.S. funds, training, and organization, they grew to a force of about 30,000 in the mid-1980s (Pastor 2002, 27). The largest Contra faction, the FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic force), had 6,000-12,000 soldiers in the latter half of the 1980s (DeFronzo 1991, 211). They faced a Sandinista military force of 25,000 in 1981 (Dickey 1987, 140), which grew to 60,000 soldiers and 200,000 local militia units in the late 1980s (DeFronzo 1991, 215)

The Contra war was the more internationalized of the two conflicts. It produced about 40,000 casualties and had important effects on neighboring Honduras, which hosted most of the U.S.-funded Contra bases, and El Salvador, which received increased aid from the United States to counter its own leftist rebels, who received support from the Sandinista government. The military regime in Argentina was a strong backer of the Contras; initially, the Argentine presence helped the United States conceal its involvement. Costa Rica, although it tried with some success to remain neutral, was another country where Contras organized against the Sandinistas.

In the early 1980s, it appeared that the Contra war could be an ongoing, low-intensity conflict of long duration. The end of the Cold War in 1989 was one of several factors that contributed to a speedier end to the Contra war. And in the United States, the 1986-1987 Iran-Contra scandal undermined what little domestic support there was for the war. Finally, the change of administration from Reagan to Bush brought a desire to “take Nicaragua off the agenda” and create a stronger working relationship between the new president and Congress (Pastor 2002). The mediation and peace efforts of other countries in the region, specifically the Arias plan, were instrumental in providing the opportunity for a nonviolent solution to the conflict once the U.S. support for the Contras waned. In the end, the Sandinistas lost power in an election but remained active as an opposition party.

Sources: Doyle and Sambanis 2000, DeFronzo 1991, Heston et. al. 2002 (PWT), Pastor 2002.
War: FSLN vs. government; government vs. Contras
Dates: 1978-1979; 1980-1989
Casualties: 1978-1979, 50,000; 1980-1989, 43,000 (Doyle and Sambanis 2000), 160,000 wounded (Pastor 2000, 161)
Regime type prior to war: -8 from 1946 to 1979 (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data— ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: -6 to -1 between 1982 and 1989; +6 in 1991 (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data—ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: US $2,215.30 (2006 dollars; from PWT 1978)
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $2,432.82 (2006 dollars; from PWT 1984) US $1,711.63 (2006 dollars; from PWT 1994)
Insurgents: FSLN (Sandinistas); Contras (FDN, ARDE, others)
Issue: 1978-1979: Repression and corruption in government 1980-1989: Ideological struggle for control of central government
Rebel funding: 1978-1979: From rebel activities (ransom), aid from Argentina, Chile, Panama, Costa Rica, Cuba 1980-1989: United States, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Taiwan, Israel, Argentina, Colombian drug traffickers, wealthy individuals
Role of geography: Rebels hid in forest and mountains; porous borders helped all sides obtain arms.
Role of resources: Not applicable
Immediate outcome: 1978-1979: Rebel victory
1980-1989: Negotiations, elections, peaceful transfer of power
Outcome after 5 years: 1978-1979 (1984): New civil war
1980-1989 (1994): Stable peace
Role of UN: Provided election monitors in 1990 and peacekeepers to disarm Contras after election
Role of NGOs: Carter Center instrumental in mediating and monitoring 1990 election.
Role of regional organization: 1978-1979: OAS was involved at the end, encouraged dictator to step down.
1980-1989: Governments in region made peace initiatives (Contadora; Arias plan).
Refugees: Remnants of Somoza government and National Guard fled in 1979.
Prospects for peace: Good
Table 1: Civil War in Nicaragua

The Insurgents

The Sandinistas

Though they began with about twenty poorly trained, poorly equipped guerrillas and little support from moderates in the populace, by 1979 the Sandinistas led a coalition that overthrew the Somoza regime. Like most rebel groups, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) began as a group of weak resisters who, throughout most of the 1960s, barely avoided total defeat. After repeated cycles of confrontation, defeat, retreats, and regrouping, they achieved an enduring but low-level resistance in the early 1970s (Booth 1985, 138-41). The guerrilla core of the group was well-organized, and it to become integrated with the peasant communities in the countryside for support. Yet the Sandinistas were not very effective in mobilizing the masses who resented Somoza’s rule until after the 1972 earthquake in Managua. The consensus among analysts of this postquake period of the Nicaraguan conflict is that the naked greed shown by Somoza and the Guard in the aftermath of the quake cost the regime the support of middle- and upper-sector business elites that had been the core of Somoza’s internal legitimacy (Booth 1985, 81-85; Crawley 1984, 150; Diederich 1981; Lake 1989, 19-20; Walker 1986, 32).

In response to Sandinista growth after the earthquake, Somoza increased repression by imposing a “state of siege,” or martial law, from 1974 to 1977; this repression caused internal debates that split the Sandinista organization while at the same time stimulating more mobilization among the masses. The Sandinistas were also unique in their willingness to use women in combat roles in the movement; at the end, up to a quarter of their soldiers were women (Booth 1985; Pastor 2002). Also, in the end the Sandinistas benefited from their willingness to ally with progressive Catholics who embraced “liberation theology.” Finally, by making alliances with moderates, democrats, and disillusioned economic elites after 1977, the Sandinistas were able to garner support from an unusual array of sources that were united in their desire to depose Somoza.

The Contras

Initially, the Contras were composed of former members of Somoza’s National Guard who fled the country after the revolution and whose skill set made soldiering their best method of earning a living. The former guard members certainly had intense grievances against the Sandinistas and the Carter government. Yet, had they been left to their exile in Honduras, Costa Rica, and the United States, they would not likely have organized a coherent guerrilla resistance. It was the U.S. government funds, weapons, organization, and training that created this rebel force. Once organized, the Contras appeared to be a credible force because of the continuing support of the United States. This credibility encouraged others who shared or developed their own grievances against the Sandinista government (such as Miskito Indians, economic elites, and alienated members of the Sandinista government), to decide to rebel. They were also supported by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which disapproved of liberation theology and the participation of priests in the Sandinista revolution.


Nicaragua is well-suited to guerrillas who wish to use mountainous and jungle terrain for cover and retreat zones. The northern border with Honduras is mountainous, making it easily permeable. The Atlantic (Miskito) coast is sparsely populated and contains jungle and rain forest. About 90 percent of Nicaraguans live on the Pacific side of the country; those on the Atlantic side include about 70,000 Miskito Indians, other indigenous peoples, and a number of descendants of African slaves who fled to Nicaragua from other countries. The Atlantic side was dominated by Britain until the 1890s, and many people in the region speak English instead of Spanish (DeFronzo 1991, 190).

Only 15 percent of the country is arable land (CIA 2006); in 1998, 26 percent was forested (Wilkie, Aleman, and Ortega 2002). Deforestation is an increasingly significant problem in Nicaragua. The country has been the victim of countless natural disasters and is vulnerable in particular to hurricanes (Mitch killed 3,800 in 1998 ([National Climatic Data Center 2006 ]), earthquakes (one centered in Managua on December 23, 1972, killed 5,000), landslides, and volcanoes (Wilkie, Aleman, and Ortega 2002).

Nicaragua’s urban centers include the capital of Managua (population 1.1 million in 2003), whose central district was destroyed by the 1972 earthquake and was not rebuilt. Smaller cities include Leon (population 124,000 in 1995), Granada (population 72,000 in 1995), and Chinandega (97,000 in 1995) (Europa World Year Book 2005).


The Sandinistas

A strength of the Sandinistas was the variety of tactics they used to mobilize followers (Simon 1991). In their early days, they pursued the standard rural guerrilla tactics preached by Mao Zedong and Che Guevara. Owing to the small size of the movement in the 1960s, the Somoza regime was able to defeat these efforts. However, as the rebels regrouped in the early 1970s, three factions formed, each pursuing a different set of tactics (Booth 1985, Pastor 2002). The first, the “prolonged peoples’ war” (guerra popular prolongada) faction, led by Tomas Borge and Henry Ruiz, maintained rural guerrilla tactics, with less emphasis on political indoctrination and more on the development of small groups of guerrillas, or foco, that could strike at the regime. A second faction, the proletarios, led by Jaime Wheelock, pursued an urban strategy that sought to mobilize unions, poor city neighborhoods, and urban workers against the regime. Principal tactics of this faction included strikes and demonstrations. The third, the Tercerista faction, led by Daniel and Humberto Ortega, sought to build broader-based coalitions, including moderate regime opponents and religious people who were not attracted to Marxism. They employed a variety of high-profile acts of resistance and terrorist tactics, such as hostage taking, designed to gain maximum publicity for the cause and to demonstrate to potential recruits that the regime could be successfully resisted. The most famous example was the August 1978 seizure of 1,500 hostages in the national palace. The raid, led by Eden Pastora, ended with the release of fifty FLSN prisoners, payment of $500,000 in ransom, and safe passage out of the country for the hostage takers (Diederich 1981). The raid also validated the Tercerista strategy as the most effective for mobilizing dissent. Soon afterward, the three factions reunited to jointly pursue the final overthrow of Somoza.

The Somoza Government

Anastasio Somoza Garcia fit the stereotype of a kleptocratic leader, but like most dictators, he developed a great deal of political skill in dividing and buying off moderate opponents. With Communist rebels, however, he had no qualms about using indiscriminate force, and this would contribute greatly to his downfall. Although at times it gained him some temporary advantage, such as during the “state of siege” imposed from 1975 to 1977, in the longer term it inflamed the opposition and allowed the FSLN to grow stronger and draw in more moderate allies.

Researchers generally note two important turning points in the conflict: the Managua earthquake of 1972 and the assassination of La Prensa editor Pedro Joachim Chamorro in 1978. Both led to serious tactical errors. As noted above, Somoza and his cronies stole earthquake aid; this greatly intensified the grievances among the urban poor in Managua and created the opportunity for the broad-based mobilization under an anti-Somoza banner that the FSLN eventually achieved. The Chamorro assassination alienated elites in the country; had Somoza been able to prevent it, or had he taken steps to punish those responsible, he might have avoided this elite division, which theorists of revolution assert is a crucial factor in the overthrow of governments (Goldstone 1982).

The Contras

Because the first groups of Contras consisted of former National Guard members who were known for their brutality, it is not surprising that the tactics of the Contras involved a considerable amount of terrorism in addition to the standard hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. After the initial Contra forces were established and trained, the United States increased aid, providing higher-quality weapons and more pay for the fighters (Dickey 1987). Although many Contra fighters believed that they were pursuing a guerrilla strategy similar to that by which the Sandinistas succeeded in the first civil war, in fact the U.S. strategy was one of “low-intensity conflict.” This strategy allowed the United States to use the Contra forces as proxies to keep pressure on the Sandinista government without committing U.S. troops. This pressure would cause the Sandinistas to become militaristic and repressive and would eventually drive the population away from supporting the regime.

This low-intensity conflict strategy explains some of the terrorist tactics used by the Contras; they attacked civilians such as teachers, coffee workers, and literacy workers sent by the regime to poor rural areas, in order to prevent the regime from providing tangible gains to the population. The strategy was supplemented by a total trade embargo imposed by the United States in 1985, which took away a trading partner that accounted for 30 percent of Nicaraguan trade (DeFronzo 1991, 210).

The Sandinista Government

The Sandinistas pursued a variety of tactics to resist the Contras. They tried to pursue policies aimed at reversal of social and economic inequalities as a means of maintaining popular support and delegitimizing the Contras. This includes their early literacy campaign, which mobilized thousands of Nicaraguans and sent them to rural villages to teach others to read. However, the Contra attacks on teachers, coffee workers, and government officials led the Sandinistas to pursue an increasingly militarized response, which in the end proved costly and sometimes counterproductive.

The Sandinistas received arms from the Soviet Union and Cuba and built their standing army to a size that, on paper, was larger than all of their neighbors’ armies combined. They also militarized society with the creation of local militias; the goal here was to prevent Contras from making gains at the village level that could not be identified and quickly countered. Such militarization led to many abuses, such as the jailing of Miskito dissidents, but Sandinista abuses were less frequent and less severe than those of the Contras, according to international human rights organizations (DeFronzo 1991, 213).

The Sandinistas combined militarization with cooperative acts designed to counter the arguments of the United States that they were a brutal Communist dictatorship. They eliminated the death penalty, offered amnesty to former National Guard members and Contras at various times during the conflict, and were credited with generally humane treatment of prisoners. Most significantly, they held a national election in 1984 that was validated as reasonably fair by international observers although dismissed by the United States as a sham.

Some tactical mistakes of the Sandinistas included programs that ostensibly protected the Miskito Indians from the Contras but instead required them to move away from their home villages. Also, at the outset of their revolutionary government, the Sandinistas insisted on supporting rebels in El Salvador, with the hope that they, too, could succeed. However this support led President Jimmy Carter to cut off U.S. aid and provoked the Reagan administration to begin organizing the Contras. Just as Castro occasionally told the Sandinistas that the best help he could give them was no help at all, the Sandinistas might have considered that their policies would, as Pastor (2002) eloquently describes, bring about the very things they wanted to avoid—a war with the United States and dependence on the Soviet Union. The Sandinistas decided that the United States would likely fabricate provocations anyway; hence the potential benefit of a revolution in El Salvador was worth the risk. This turned out to be incorrect.

Causes of the War

The Sandinista Revolution

The central cause of the first civil war was similar to dozens of others in Latin America and the developing world—a corrupt, economically ineffective, repressive, and illegitimate dictatorship that created vast grievances among the masses of poor people but eventually even among elites in the country. Of course, grievances are a necessary precondition to rebellion but hardly sufficient. Those with grievances could pursue many means of redress. The 1956 assassination of Somoza Garcia showed that an isolated dissident could not create effective change. The 1959 Cuban revolution revealed another, more effective strategy. But the first group of Sandinista rebels who attempted a rural guerrilla resistance was largely unsuccessful; the coercive power of the regime was too strong. The Sandinistas achieved success only when they expanded their narrow ideology to embrace moderate regime opponents. Once they had demonstrated that they had a significant chance of success (Lich-bach 1994), they were able to mobilize effectively as well as attract external support.

Just as important to the success of the Sandinistas were conditions affecting the Somoza regime. The regime was weakened by a natural disaster (the 1972 earthquake), a loss of support from its international patron (with the election of Carter as U.S. president in 1976), and finally by its own tactics of indiscriminate repression in response to growing Sandinista strength. It is easy to speculate, in hindsight, that a leader less greedy and more creative than Somoza could have made the compromises necessary to maintain U.S. support and that of the economic elite in the country.

The Contra War

The desire of the United States to create an armed resistance to the Sandinista government was the most important factor in the creation of the Contra war. Remnants of Somoza’s National Guard would no doubt have mounted attacks on their own, but without U.S. funds, weapons, and training, this would not have constituted an ongoing civil war. Still, the Contras were able to attract additional groups and leaders who had become disenchanted with the Sandinista government (for example, Eden Pastora); thus they were able to recruit in both urban and rural areas.


Conflict Status

The Sandinista revolution ended with the breakdown of the Somoza government and the Sandinista takeover on July 20, 1979. The Sandinistas installed a junta that consisted of guerrilla leaders (including Daniel Ortega as the spokesperson of the group) and moderates Alfonso Robelo Callejas and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, widow of Pedro Joachim Chamorro, the assassinated editor of La Prensa. The new government stated its intention to develop a “mixed” economy and to pursue policies aimed at helping the poor. However, Somoza had left only $3 million in the treasury, and the Sandinistas inherited a $1.6 billion debt (Booth 1985; Walker 1986). By 1980, tensions had developed between the Sandinistas and their moderate allies; Robelo and Chamorro resigned from the junta in April, and opposition developed among business elites, Catholic bishops, and even former guerrilla leaders such as Eden Pastora in 1982 (Dickey 1987, 149). Within six weeks of its inauguration in January 1981, the Reagan administration signed an intelligence “finding” that allowed it to begin organizing the bands of former National Guard members into what became the Contras (Dickey 1987; Pastor 2002).

The Contra war was resolved by an election that brought to power Violeta Chamorro and the Nicaraguan Opposition Union (UNO) coalition. The election was the result of the Arias peace plan, which brought pressure from the Central American governments who supported it, and of long negotiations between the Sandinistas and their opponents, mediated by former President Jimmy Carter. After the election, Chamorro decided to retain Humberto Ortega (brother of Daniel) as head of the armed forces. This and other gestures helped the Sandinistas accept their electoral defeat and make the transition to an opposition political party and political movement. They remain a strong force in Nicaraguan politics. In the elections, Daniel Ortega finished second with 42 percent of the vote (Anderson and Dodd 2002). In 2006, a more moderate Ortega was elected president.

Duration Tactics

Using 1961 as a starting point, the Sandinistas took quite a long time to achieve their final victory, and the odds were against them most of the way. They received little external help in the first decade and had little success in generating popular mobilization. They benefited from the brutality and unpopularity of Somoza, which gave them an enemy they could use to mobilize. Ironically, it was when the guerrillas grew strong enough to split into factions that they were able to make tactical innovations that helped them in the end. The three FSLN factions each pursued different tactics; while this competition could have been destructive, in the end it was constructive. The success of the Terceristas in achieving popular mobilization led the Sandinistas to reunify and eventually defeat Somoza’s National Guard. Guerrilla tactics usually take a long time, and as noted earlier, they usually fail when used against a government that is not colonial or a foreign occupier.

The lack of military intervention to aid Somoza also shortened the conflict. At the very end, in June 1979, it became apparent to all that the Somoza government would lose. Yet, despite desperate mediation attempts by the United States, Somoza stubbornly refused to turn power over to a successor in the National Guard and seek exile. According to Pastor (2002), this prevented a solution that might have kept the Sandinistas from controlling the entire government. Had the United States succeeded in getting Somoza to step down, to leave the Guard intact, and to find a replacement leader, the conflict would have been substantially longer.

Several factors prolonged the Contra war, but three stand out as important. First, the bipolar Cold War system quickly led both sides in the conflict to receive aid from rival superpowers. A second factor is that the U.S. administration and the Sandinista government deeply distrusted each other, and as a result both chose to pursue a military solution to the conflict rather than a diplomatic one. The Carter administration initially offered aid to the Sandinista government but ended it after evidence surfaced that the Sandinistas were arming the rebels in El Salvador. The election of Ronald Reagan, who came to power with a mandate to pursue a more confrontational policy toward the Soviet Union, effectively ended U.S. efforts to pursue a diplomatic solution. As Robert Pastor (2002) convincingly argues, the policies of the United States and the Sandinistas were driven by their leaders’ mutual obsession with each other as enemies. Ironically, this obsession led each side to take actions that brought about the very outcome that they said they feared. The United States wanted the Sandinistas to become more democratic, less dependent on Moscow, and less likely to spread revolution in the region. The reverse occurred. The Sandinistas wanted to maintain relations with moderate supporters in Nicaragua, diversify their foreign relations, and be free from U.S. attack; instead, they became dependent on the Soviets and the Cubans, alienated moderate supporters, and faced a Contra rebellion that was well-funded by the United States.

A third factor in prolonging the conflict is the rather high level of armaments (by Central American standards) provided by interveners. However, when conditions changed to prevent this level of armament, the war came to an unexpectedly quick ending. The conditions that ended the war were the Iran-Contra scandal (which nearly eliminated support in the U.S. Congress for continued armament of the Contras); the end of the Cold War in 1989 (which diffused the superpower conflict that was the basis of the U.S. and Soviet provision of arms); and finally, the Arias peace plan (which was there when all sides needed a way out of the conflict).

External Military Intervention

The FSLN was supported by Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, and Cuba in 1978-1979. Before this period, Costa Rica had provided sanctuary for the FSLN. Panama provided asylum for the guerrillas who raided the Nicaraguan national palace, and later transferred arms to the FSLN. The help from Cuba came very near the end, in the form of arms shipments through Costa Rica (Christian 1985; Diederich 1981). This was a departure from Castro’s previous position that the best help he could provide the Sandinistas was “not to help at all” (Booth 1985, 134). His fear was that Cuban aid would provide the pretext for U.S. intervention.

The Somoza government was supported by the United States until September 1977, when President Carter, who had embraced human rights as the “soul” of his foreign policy, essentially told Somoza that support was no longer unconditional. This caused Somoza to lift the state of siege. Somoza had the diplomatic support of some right-wing governments in the region, such El Salvador and Argentina, but was opposed in the end by all members of the OAS except Paraguay (on June 23, 1979, the OAS voted seventeen to two to demand that Somoza resign). To influence Somoza to moderate his policies, the United States used economic incentives tied to human rights, eventually pursuing the meditation effort described following to encourage Somoza to leave before the Sandinistas won.

The United States funded the Contras and supported Honduras for hosting their bases. The Contras were also funded by the royal family of Saudi Arabia; the sultan of Brunei; Taiwan; Colombian drug traffickers; and private individuals recruited by the Reagan administration during the period from October 1984 to June 1986, when the United States was prevented by the Boland amendments from legally supporting the Contras. Costa Rica initially permitted Contra bases, but this ended after Oscar Arias was elected in 1986. The United States imposed a total trade embargo in May 1985 (Pastor 2002).

The Sandinistas initially received humanitarian aid from the United States, but Carter cut this off in January 1981 after evidence of Sandinista support for Salvadoran rebels came to light (Pastor 2002). The sources of weapons for the Sandinistas were the Soviet Union and Cuba (Regan 2002). Their goal was to prevent a Contra victory, but they were also careful not to provoke direct U.S. military intervention into the conflict. They provided helicopters and other weapons that were very helpful for fighting the Contras, who were using the hilly, forested regions near the Honduran border to conceal their bases.

Conflict Management Efforts

By 1977, there was growing awareness in the United States, on the part of Central American governments, and among elites in Nicaragua that in order to prevent a Sandinista victory, Somoza needed to leave power. The question was, when and how could this be done? As the fighting intensified in 1978, many efforts were made to convince the dictator to leave. From October to December 1978, the United States led an OAS-sponsored mediation effort that sought, through negotiations with Somoza and the Broad Opposition Front (FAO), to find a way for the dictator to leave power before his term of office ended in 1981. After consideration of many ideas, including a national plebiscite on Somoza’s rule, the mediation ended in failure (Lake 1989, ch. 8). Somoza did not want to leave office and was concerned for his life and his assets should he be forced out. The Sandinistas were suspicious that the mediation was a deliberate attempt to weaken the revolution and to install some form of “Somocismo without Somoza” by retaining the National Guard in a new government (Pastor 2002). Had the mediation succeeded, the war would have been shortened, and a more moderate coalition would likely have governed. Because it failed, the Sandinistas went on to military victory seven months later.

Because it appeared that the United States and the Sandinistas were not likely to make any progress on what had become an important regional problem, the leaders of several Central and South American countries took a variety of initiatives to fill the diplomatic vacuum. The first effort was called the Contadora plan; it was launched at a meeting of the foreign ministers of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama on the Panamanian island of Contadora in January 1983. As Pastor (2002, 198) notes, it was the first time in the century that the United States was excluded from such a negotiation in the Americas. Over the next two years, the group wrote four drafts of a treaty, and though Nicaragua agreed to sign the final (June 6) draft, the United States, Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador refused, and the process petered out.

However, with the 1986 democratic elections of Vinicio Cerezo in Guatemala and Oscar Arias in Costa Rica, a new peace plan began brewing. In February 1987, Arias proposed a ten-point peace plan, building on the Contadora proposal. This would eventually become the basis for negotiations that led to the 1990 election that ended the conflict. The Contras agreed to the election and applied lessons that it had learned from its electoral defeat in 1984—namely, not to boycott an election that could be fair and bring them legitimacy, if not political power. The Sandinistas agreed to the election partly because they believed that they would indeed win a free election, and that if the election were validated as free by international observers, U.S. funding of the Contras and the war would end.

The Organization of American States (OAS) and the UN both provided election monitors (DeFronzo 1991, 218), and the UN helped to disarm the Contras after the election. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter played a central role in negotiating the detailed terms of the election itself. Without his mediation, it is likely that the whole effort would have failed. Carter insisted upon several mechanisms to make sure that voter intimidation would not be tolerated, that the vote would be accurate and credible, and that both sides would accept the result.


The two civil wars in Nicaragua provide much to consider for those interested in the dynamics of civil war and rebellion. The Sandinista revolution was one of a very few that used guerrilla tactics to overthrow a nonoccupation government. Was their success due to their innovation and effectiveness or to the poor strategies pursued by Somoza? The lack of a moderate alternative to the Somoza regime combined with the Sandinistas’ willingness to expand their coalition to include moderates to provide the Sandinistas with the political and military strength to win the civil war. Still, Somoza had a loyal military force behind him, and had he been more willing to compromise to divide his opponents, he might have been able to survive.

The Contra war was one of the first successful uses of a low-intensity conflict strategy, and it is one of a rare number of civil wars that have resulted in stable, democratic outcomes. Are these cases unique, or are there lessons here that can be applied elsewhere? The end of the Cold War created an international context that made the Contra war likely to end; however, the fact that it ended in democracy has a lot more to do with the active role played by states and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) committed to peaceful conflict resolution. In particular, the efforts of states in the region to create and implement the Arias plan, plus the availability and willingness of Jimmy Carter to act as mediator, were necessary for democracy to prevail.