In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Sandinista Revolution and the FSLN

  • Introduction
  • The Revolutionary Victory: Insurrection
  • The 1990 Elections and the Chamorro Administration
  • The FSLN in the Opposition, 1990–2006
  • The FSLN’s Return to Power
  • The 2018 Uprising and the Authoritarian Shutdown of Daniel Ortega’s Regime

Latin American Studies The Sandinista Revolution and the FSLN
Salvador Martí i Puig
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0194


In July 1961 a group of young, radicalized Nicaraguans inspired by the experience of Cuba founded a guerrilla organization, the Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front, or FLN), to take up arms against the Somoza regime. Later, one of its founding leaders added the epithet “Sandinista” to the organization’s name (inspired by the anti-imperialist tradition started by Augusto César Sandino, who led a rebellion from 1927 to 1933), making it the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN) as of 1962. Initially, the FSLN focused on carrying out guerrilla actions in the mountains. But it was in the second half of the 1970s that the FSLN began to gain real political influence after activating urban groups, gaining the support of the middle class, and even co-opting members of high society. Four factors played a key role in challenging the regime of President Anastasio Somoza DeBayle: the position of the Carter administration in favor of human rights, the social impact of the assassination of Pedro J. Chamorro (a prestigious journalist opposed to the regime) in 1978, the intense repression unleashed by Somoza’s National Guard, and the FSLN’s capacity to create alliances. Thanks to this combination of factors, together with the social support they enjoyed among the poor urban youth, on 19 July 1979 the leaders of FSLN went out onto the streets of Managua to proclaim the Sandinista Revolution. The revolutionary process led by the FSLN had many objectives, but it laid stress on a profound agrarian reform and mobilized the population in campaigns for education and health. At the institutional level the revolution created a centralized state led by the FSLN, which, at the international level, became associated with Cuba and the Soviet Union, although it also maintained relations with other regimes in Latin America and western Europe. However, the revolution soon also found a powerful enemy: the US administration led by Ronald Reagan, which designed and financed a campaign of political aggression (the counterrevolutionary war) to end the revolutionary experience that, as was claimed, could extend throughout the region. The counterrevolutionary war limited and changed many of the projects that the FSLN had initially planned. In 1990, after almost a decade of war and economic crisis, elections were held in the framework of liberal-democratic institutions created as a result of a constitution drawn up in 1987. Daniel Ortega (president of Nicaragua since 1984) represented the FSLN against a broad coalition led by Violeta Barrios (the widow of Pedro J. Chamorro, the journalist assassinated in 1978). Barrios won the election, and for the first time in history an organization that had reached power by taking up arms gave up its power following defeat at the ballot box. After losing the elections, the FSLN became a political party, turning into the main opposition force in the country, a position it held for sixteen years. Nevertheless, after losing three consecutive elections (in 2006, 2011, and 2016), it won the presidency of the Republic with the leader who had lost in 1990, Daniel Ortega. Yet the FSLN that reached power had undergone a heavy organizational and ideological change. Currently, the FSLN is a party controlled and dominated by the Ortega family, and its main objective is to remain in power. There is ample literature on the Nicaraguan Revolution and Sandinismo, although most of it was written in, or after, the 1980s. This is important because it means that these works coincided with the Sandinista Revolution, and, therefore, regardless of their quality, they were conditioned by it.

The Revolutionary Victory: Insurrection

The first event that attracted academic attention toward Sandinismo was the conflict between the FSLN and the Somoza regime (There are three Somoza’s during the “Somoza Regime” The first was Anastasio Somoza García (the father) (r. 1937–1956), the second Luis Somoza DeBayle (r. 1956–1963), the third Anastasio Somoza DeBayle (r. 1967–1972 and 1974–1979), which began in 1961 (when the FSLN was founded, and Luis Somoza DeBayle was president) and became more intense as of 1977 as a result of the “insurrectional war.” An important reference work that interprets the insurrectional process through interviews and the few statistical data available is Vilas 1986, which aims to describe not only the group that took to the streets to fight against Somoza, but also their motives. Other issues include the ideological, strategic, and biographical origins of the guerrilla force (the FSLN) that led the insurrection, an aspect approached from a favorable viewpoint in Hodges 1986 and Zimmermann 2000, and in a critical way in Nolan 1988, which denounces the clearly Marxist and, in Nolan’s opinion, authoritarian tendency of the group.

  • Hodges, Donald C. Intellectual Origins of Nicaraguan Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.7560/738386

    A study of Sandino’s political thought and how this was reworked, via Marxism and anarchism, by the youngsters and intellectuals who created the FSLN.

  • Nolan, David. The Ideology of the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan Revolution. Coral Gables, FL: Institute of Interamerican Studies, 1988.

    A book that describes the FSLN’s ideological foundations and the profiles of its leaders, from its beginnings until it reached power in 1979. This study pays particular attention to the doctrinal battles that Sandinismo experienced in the 1970s, and it shows its division into three “tendencies.”

  • Vilas, Carlos M. The Sandinista Revolution: National Liberation and Social Transformation in Central America. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986.

    This text was originally published in Spanish with the title Perfiles de la Revolución Sandinista. It is an excellent sociological study of the Sandinista insurrection and the victory of the revolution. The original version in Spanish won the Casa de las Américas prize in 1984.

  • Zimmermann, Matilde. Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822380993

    A detailed and reflexive book on the doctrinal and philosophical inspiration of the FSLN and its relationship with the thought of Sandino and the Latin American guerrilla movements that were founded after the Cuban Revolution.

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