This only served to increase the popular discontent with the Somoza regime. The Sandinista National Liberation Front guerrillas (FSLN) increased their activities. The killing of Nicaragua’s leading newspaper publisher and opposition ruler Carlos Fonseca Amador in January 1978 by Somoza’s business associates resulted in national defiance and international indignation. A series of popular uprisings and heavy fighting by the FSLN along with international opposition compounded the dictator’s problems.
A mediation process led by the OAS collapsed during January 1979, when president Somoza refused to hold a national plebiscite and insisted on staying in power until 1981. As fighting increased, the Nicaraguan economy faced a severe economic crisis, with a sharp decline in agricultural and industrial production, as well as high levels of unemployment, inflation, defence spending, and capital flight.
The government debt also increased mostly as a result of defence expenditures and the gradual suspension of economic support from all international financial institutions.
On 1 February 1979, the Sandinistas established the National Patriotic Front (Frente Patriotico Nacional-FPN), which included Los Doce, the PLI, and the Popular Social Christian Party (Partido Popular Social Cristiano -PPSC).
The FSLN launched its final offensive during May, just as the National Guard began to lose control of many areas of the country. In a year’s time, bold military and political moves had changed the FSLN from one of many opposition groups to a leadership role in the anti-Somoza revolt.
On 19 July 1979 the Sandinistas entered Managua bringing to an end the longest lasting family dictatorship in the Latin American history.
The five-member junta consisting of Daniel Jose Ortega Saavedra of the FSLN, Moises Hassan Morales of the FPN, Sergio Ramirez Mercado of Los Doje, Alfonso Robelo Callejas of the MDN, and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of La Prensa’s editor entered the Nicaraguan capital and assumed power, reiterating its pledge to work for political pluralism, a mixed economic system, and a non-aligned foreign policy.
The new government inherited a country in ruins, with a stagnant economy and a debt of about US$1.6 billion. Most Nicaraguans saw the Sandinista victory as an opportunity to create a system free of the political, social, and economic inequalities of the almost universally hated Somoza regime.
The first or immediate goal of the new government was the reconstruction of the national economy. The new government enacted the Agrarian Reform Law, beginning with the nationalisation of all rural properties owned by the Somoza family and their associates representing more than 20 per cent of Nicaragua’s cultivable land.
These farms became state property under the new Ministry of Agrarian Reform. Financial institutions, all in bankruptcy from the massive capital flight during the war, were also nationalised.
The second goal of the Sandinistas was a change in the old government’s pattern of repression and brutality. Most prisoners accused of injustices under the Somoza regime were given a trial and the Ministry of Interior forbade cruelty to prisoners. Amnesty International and other human rights groups found the human rights situation in Nicaragua greatly improved.
The third major goal of the country’s new leaders was the establishment of new political institutions to consolidate the revolution. This was done by abolishing the constitution, presidency, Congress, and all courts through the proclamation of the Fundamental Statute of the Republic of Nicaragua on 22 August 1979.
The junta ruled under emergency powers. National government policy, however, was generally made by the nine-member Joint National Directorate (Direction Nacional Conjunto-DNC), the ruling body of the FSLN. A consultative corporatist representative assembly, the Council of State approved laws submitted to it by the junta.
The junta, however, had the right of veto and retained control over much of the budget. The membership of the junta changed during its early years. By 1983 the junta was reduced to three members, with Daniel Ortega clearly playing the lead role.
Immediately after the revolution, the Sandinistas had the best organised and most experienced military force in the country, a new national army, the Sandinista People’s Army (Ejercito Popular Sandinista-EPS), as well as a police force, the Sandinista Police (Polida Sandinista -PS).
The new Sandinista government was not universally welcomed. On the domestic front, the ethnic minorities from the Caribbean coast rejected Sandinista efforts to incorporate them into the national mainstream.
The United States government accused the government of supplying arms to guerrillas in El Salvador and even supported groups of counter-revolutionaries known as Contras.
The bishops of the Roman Catholic Church distrusted the Sandinista ideology and although supportive of the anti-Somoza movement during the late 1970s, opposed the Sandinista regime in the 1980s.
On 4 November 1984, about 75 per cent of the registered voters went to the polls. The FSLN won 67 per cent of the votes, the presidency, and sixty-one of the ninety-six seats in the new National Assembly.
Daniel Ortega began his six-year presidential term on 10 January 1985. The Reagan administration ordered a total embargo on United States trade with Nicaragua the following month, accusing the Sandinista regime of threatening United States security in the region. The FSLN government responded by suspending civil liberties.
The media of the church as well as the conservative newspaper La Prensa were censored or closed for various periods and the Sandinista government was forced to divert more and more of its economic resources from economic development to defence against the Contras.
An additional step toward the solution of the Nicaraguan conflict was taken at a summit of Central American presidents held on 15 January 1988, when President Daniel Ortega agreed to hold direct talks with the Contras, to lift the state of emergency, and to call for national elections.
In March the FSLN government met the representatives of the Contras and signed a cease-fire agreement. By mid-1988, international institutions had demanded that the Sandinistas launch a drastic economic adjustment programme as a condition for resumption of aid. This new economic programme imposed further hardship on the Nicaraguan people.
With the country becoming bankrupt and the loss of economic support from the economically strapped Soviet Union, the Sandinistas decided to move up the date for general elections in order to convince the United States Congress to end all aid to the Contras and to attract potential economic support from Europe and the United States.
The FSLN government reinstated political freedoms. Many Nicaraguans expected the country’s economic crisis to deepen and the Contra conflict to continue if the Sandinistas remained in power.
In contrast, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro promised to end the unpopular military draft, bring about democratic reconciliation, and promote economic growth and won in the 25 February 1990, elections.