Twenty-one Points on Nicaragua with Emphasis on Fourteen

Editor’s Note: The analysis of the crisis in Nicaragua printed below is part of an effort by individuals from across a broad range of the political spectrum to bring peace with freedom to the Nicaraguan people. This effort has produced the present analysis and an allied initiative known as the APPEAL FOR PEACE THROUGH NEGOTIATIONS IN NICARAGUA. Supporters of the APPEAL—which calls on the Sandinista government to open talks with its opposition, mediated by the Nicaraguan Catholic bishops—have been critical of U.S. support for the contras, but nonetheless believe that Americans should recognize the degree of responsibility the Sandinistas bear for civil war, the deprivation of human rights and regional tensions. Persons interested in obtaining further information concerning the APPEAL are encouraged to write: APPEAL, 1514 N.E. 45th Street, Seattle, Washington 98105.


1. The primary focus should be on what is causing the killing and violence in Nicaragua and what can be done to end it, consistent with the desire of all Nicaraguans to fashion their political future free from the intervention or domination of other nations.


2. While the actions of the United States toward Nicaragua have often deserved (and often received) much criticism, our record does not deserve the characterization of “yanqui enemy of humanity,” as the Sandinista national anthem has it. Whereas Americans were divided in assessing the implications of a Sandinista-dominated government after the revolution, they were virtually unanimous in acclaiming the fall of Somoza. The roughly $120 million in assistance we provided to the Sandinista government in its first two years in power was a significant expression of support and was more than we had given Nicaragua under Anastasio Somoza Jr. during his thirteen years in power.

3. The question is much less whether we should be involved than how. What kind of relationship would most benefit the people of Nicaragua, is desired by them, and would also be acceptable to the American people? The best analysis to date of Central American problems remains that of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (the Kissinger Commission Report). The President and Congress should move rapidly to implement—and be open to Nicaraguan participation in—the Report’s imaginative and comprehensive proposals.

4. Excessive neglect, as much as excessive meddling, can be said to have been the major flaw in U.S. policy toward Central America. Narrow approaches of the realist school, as expressed for example in the excerpt below from a recent article in The New York Times, wisely emphasize the virtues of restraint but fundamentally miss the point.

What we need is a hardheaded American-first policy that focuses less on domestic (Central American) politics and more on keeping Soviet and Cuban bases out. What happens inside Central America is of little interest to us, and we should avoid trying to force either the right or the left to undertake political reform. [Alan Tonelson, “What Central American Democracy?,” New York Times, May 22, 1985.]

The problem with such an approach is that it has in fact characterized United States policy toward Latin America and has contributed to the charge that we are prepared to countenance dictatorships, torture, violence, and political repression—so long as there was no communist threat on the horizon. When communist forces did threaten to take over a government, we began to speak of the need for political reform. Even then our attitudes toward fundamental human rights violations often seemed determined by, and subordinated to, the requirements of effectively meeting the communist threat. The moral shortfalls of this approach have also had practical drawbacks—among which are anti-American feelings in much of Latin America, fueled by a sense of fundamental disinterest and neglect on the part of the United States.

5. The Administration’s statements on Nicaragua will be most persuasive if they avoid exaggeration or misrepresentation and present a balanced picture of the situation. The American people know that foreign policy issues are complex and are suspicious of simplifiers, be they Sandinista apologists or members of our government. It would be salutary if the President, while drawing attention to aspects of Sandinista behavior that should concern us, could acknowledge some of their beneficial aspects—e.g., their accomplishments in the field of public health. The American people want to know that our policy is based on a balanced view of the situation; to the degree the President can convince the public of this, support for his policies will strengthen, not weaken.

6. The Administration should consult as closely as possible with leaders of friendly Nicaraguan political forces and leaders of other nations in the region before adopting new policies or measures. The economic sanctions (which have been opposed by many non-Sandinista Nicaraguans, as well as 23 heads of state in Latin America) are an example of an ill-considered action which might have been averted with more regional consultation. Multilateral diplomacy is slower, can be more difficult, and may sometimes be ineffective—yet it is essential to resolving problems in Central America. For this reason, the Administration should make every effort to strengthen—and not ignore or oppose—the joint diplomacy of the nations of the region, and especially the Contadora group.

7. Any notions of using Nicaragua to square accounts with the Soviet Union and Cuba for Vietnam, Angola, Ethiopia, or Afghanistan—to prove that “communist revolutions are reversible”—should be resisted. There is an East-West dimension to the conflict in Nicaragua, but it would be unfair to the suffering people of that nation—to say the least—to let a desire to “teach a lesson” to the Soviet Union or Cuba undermine our efforts to accomplish the central task: strengthening peace and freedom in Nicaragua and other nations of the region.


8. A genuine political conflict underlies the violence and killing in Nicaragua today. It is false to characterize those in the armed opposition as “mercenaries.” The tragedy is that, six years after the civil war that toppled Somoza: Nicaraguans are still killing Nicaraguans for political reasons. The Sandinistas who fought against Somoza were Nicaraguans, willing to fight, kill and be killed for their political aims. They obtained substantial amounts of weapons, funds and assistance from other countries. They were not mercenaries. For the same reasons, it is wrong to call members of the NDF (Nicaraguan Democratic Force) mercenaries simply because they received substantial funds, weapons and technical assistance from the U.S. (and other sources). Outside support for one or both of the warring parties is a common feature of all civil wars.

9. It is inconsistent and hypocritical of the Sandinistas constantly to point out the number of ex-National Guardsmen (members of the army under Somoza) who are in the forces of the contras when it is the Sandinistas who have prevented the normal re-integration of ex-Guardsmen into Nicaraguan society. To give two thousand National Guardsmen who were captured or surrendered after the fall of Somoza harsh prison sentences (up to thirty years in jail), after denying them due judicial process, was not an act of national reconciliation. When members of the losing side are stripped of their political and civil rights and imprisoned for long terms—essentially for having been members of the losing side—it should not be surprising if some decide not to lay down their arms but to continue the struggle. They may see It as their only hope of reclaiming their national rights and freedom.

10. Wars can be ended—and avoided—in two ways: by the capitulation of one party to the conflict, or through a political process (negotiations leading to a treaty or agreement, or elections). In Nicaragua today, the government is asking the contras to capitulate; the contras are asking for a political process that will lead to internationally-supervised, free and fair elections,


11. In the Orwellian world of the twentieth century, where the worst tyrannies routinely employ political doublespeak, it is easy to become confused about democracy’s true meaning. What distinguishes democracy from “peoples’ democratic republics” is the postulate that the dignity and freedom of the individual are fundamental. The state exists to serve the person, not vice-versa. From this simple, core idea flows everything else: the importance of people periodically being able to choose a government, the principles of majority rule but protection for minority rights, etc.

12. The Leninist idea of a “vanguard party,” or “democratic centralism,” clearly underlies Sandinista political philosophy. It is a far more sophisticated rationale for dictatorship than rule by an individual, but it is no less anti-democratic. Indeed, it can be more tyrannical. For individuals die and, with them, so often do their dictatorships. Spain’s Franco and Portugal’s Salazar are recent examples. But a party in control of the state apparatus need not die. If it combines its rule with extensive repression, censorship, and doctrinaire economic policies, it can make life miserable for generations of citizens. Herein lies the fear many Nicaraguans have for the future of their country. It does not augur well that the Sandinistas espouse Leninism and identify so closely with political regimes that have caused (and still cause) so much suffering and oppression.

13. Apart from making a simple but profound statement about the worth of the individual, democracy is mainly a process. It is a process through which political programs are fashioned and not the political programs themselves. One democracy may agree on free health care for all its citizens; another may not. The differences in programs among democratic systems reflect the differences in values and traditions in the respective societies—differences which vary over time as well as across nations. Democracy is simply a mechanism through which members of a political community can participate in resolving the inevitable dilemmas posed by competing social objectives in a way that achieves the highest possible degree of agreement. This enhances the legitimacy of government and reduces the likelihood of political violence and disorder. In this way democracy is the connection between peace and freedom: it provides the process of periodically renewing consent that confers legitimacy on a government and narrows, or eliminates, the moral basis for violent challenges to its authority.

14. Besides insuring participation, democracy also stresses the importance of limits to power. It is assumed th6t political leadership, no matter how “progressive,” will abuse its power if not limited. Even “vanguard” parties can become retrograde dictatorships. Without limits on power, people cannot live in peace, free to pursue their interests, protected from unauthorized intrusions by political authority into their private lives. Democracy thus fulfills two needs: the need for participation, and the need for limits on state authority.


15. The fundamental problem in Nicaragua today is the absence of liberty and instead the creation of a de facto one-party state with few limits on its authority. In this sense, the Sandinistas have replaced a dictatorship of the right with a dictatorship of the left. They have ignored an important distinction: while Nicaraguans agreed overwhelmingly on the goal of overthrowing Somoza, there was no such broad agreement on what kind of government should replace him. That choice has indeed never been made by the Nicaraguan people. Precisely because Somoza denied democracy to the nation, Nicaraguans were willing to support the armed insurrection of the Sandinistas. But this did not give the nine leaders of the FSLN the right to install a “Sandinista democracy” which would deny the nation thereafter any effective political choice.

16. To call upon the Sandinistas to establish democratic government is only to hold them to pledges they themselves made—both to their own people and to the international community. The failure of the Sandinistas to fulfill expectations of freedom and democracy in Nicaragua is a major reason for the absence of peace in their country today. Their betrayal of promises made before coming to power began almost immediately after taking power. As early as April 1980 Humberto Ortega, minister of defense and brother of President Daniel Ortega, stated that elections in Nicaragua would not be like elections in Costa Rica, Venezuela, the United States, or other “bourgeois countries.” Sandinista-style elections would occur only “to select the best among the revolutionary vanguard… for power has been conquered forever by the people and it shall never be gambled again.” [See Humberto Belli, Nicaragua: Christians Under Fire (Puebla Inst., 1984), p. 24.]

In an article in Le Monde (May 3, 1984), Tomas Sorge, the sole surviving founder of the Sandinista Party and currently Minister of the Interior, stated: “Anyone who fails to understand that a revolutionary power is a single power understands nothing.” Other Sandinista leaders are quoted as saying, “There’s no question of our losing the elections. We came to power at the point of a gun. We’re not going to lose it through an election.”

There are also the telling statements of Bayardo Arce (see Appendix), a member of the Sandinista Directorate, in a speech given in May 1984. According to Foreign Report (August 23, 1984), published by The Economist in London, Daniel Ortega confirmed the authenticity of the remarks, which were secretly taped and published by a Barcelona newspaper. Their significance is heightened by the fact that Arce is head of the FSLN’s Political Committee and as such managed the 1984 election. [The elections of November 1984 were seriously flawed, as evidenced by, among other things, the refusal of any Latin American head of state—except Fidel Castro—to attend Daniel Ortega’s inauguration this past January.]

17. For those who support the aspirations for freedom of the Nicaraguan people and are opposed to violence and the use of armed force, the central challenge today is how to persuade leaders of the political movement that seized state power after the fall of Somoza to submit to a truly democratic process that would put at risk the paramountcy of their “revolutionary vanguard party.” Accomplishing this goal, short of reliance on military measures, clearly will require more imaginative and concerted approaches than those adopted to date.


18. American citizens have an important role to play in shaping U.S. relations with Nicaragua. They should begin, however, by trying to understand better the situation in Nicaragua and the events that led up to it. This is not always easy. A great deal of misinformation is purveyed under the guise of “public education.” Those who concern themselves with Central America issues at the community level often have strong emotional attachments to highly simplified, sometimes doctrinaire, views—usually covering a narrow range of the political spectrum. Programs they sponsor are often designed not to expose participants to the relevant range of facts and opinions, but instead to reinforce one particular interpretation of events and one particular, morally “correct” approach. Other concerned citizens, with a different point of view, stay away from such programs, knowing that their point of view will not be represented and that real debate will not be encouraged. As a result of these factors, citizen understanding of U.S. policy or of the situation in Nicaragua is rarely deepened or clarified by public debate and discussion—in contrast to the healthier pattern that prevails for domestic policy issues.

19. Although the American public generally appreciates the difference between open and closed societies, it is a curious paradox that many domestic critics of the “credibility gap” in our foreign policy often grant leaders of political systems that control their press, and make routine use of propaganda and repression, more credibility and respect than they do representatives of our own government. One explanation is that our press has a responsibility to expose the lies of the American government rather than those of police states abroad; and that it discharges this responsibility in ways that suggest to the unwitting that other governments, including police states, are no more deceitful than ours is. While there is something to this argument, it does not excuse (or fully explain) the inordinately uncritical attitude many domestic critics of U.S. policy apply to statements of the Sandinistas on the one hand, and the unshakeable cynicism they reserve, on the other hand, for statements from the Administration. The evidence simply does not exist to indicate that our government is less credible than any dictatorship, of the left or right, that controls the press, punishes dissent, and makes routine use of deception and “disinformation.” It is a measure of the problem, however, that this argument even needs to be made.

20. Americans who believe in democratic values and basic human rights, yet dissent from Administration policy, should make special efforts to insure that the Sandinistas do not misinterpret opposition to our government’s policy as support for Sandinista politics. They can do this by communicating to the government in Nicaragua their concern over the conditions of political prisoners and the lack of access by clergy and officials of human rights organizations to prisoners in all the jails; by declaring their support for a free press, an independent church, free trade unions, and the protection of national minorities; and by endorsing the APPEAL FOR PEACE THROUGH NEGOTIATIONS IN NICARAGUA.

21. Finally, Americans should learn more about the democratic political opposition to the Sandinistas. Instead of accepting the line that they are “mercenaries” and somocistas, they should verify for themselves the background and credentials of the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance and become familiar with its program.



Arce was speaking to members of the Nicaraguan Socialist Party, a small Moscow-line communist party, and explaining the decision to hold elections in the context of the “program of national reconstruction.” (It is noteworthy that the decision to hold elections, which had appeared to be indefinitely postponed, was announced two weeks after the U.S. invasion of Grenada.) Said Arce:

As part of that program we spoke of bringing about revolutionary change based on three principles which made us presentable in the international context and which, as far as we were concerned, were manageable from the revolutionary standpoint.

Those principles were non-alignment abroad, a mixed economy, and political pluralism. With those three elements we kept the international community from going along with American policy in Nicaragua; in fact, we got a number of governments of various tendencies to back the position of Nicaragua, the position of the Sandinista Front and of the revolutionary forces.

Of course, once defined in specific terms, this imposed certain commitments. One was that we said we were going to elect a constituent assembly, that we were going to have elections. While we might view those commitments as negative, if we analyze our revolution in black and white, we still consider them to be positive at this time. Of course, if we did not have the war situation imposed on us by the United States, the electoral problem would be totally out of place in terms of its usefulness. What a revolution really needs is the power to act. The power to act is precisely what constitutes the essence of the dictatorship of the proletariat—the ability of the working class to impose its will by using the means at hand without bourgeois formalities.

For us, then, the elections, viewed from that perspective, are a nuisance… But from a realistic standpoint, being in a war with the United States, those things became weapons of the revolution to move forward the construction of socialism. Furthermore, for us it is useful, for example, to be able to display an entrepreneurial class and private production in the mixed economy system we promulgated, while we move ahead in strategic ways. The important thing is that the entrepreneurial class no longer controls all the means to reproduce itself. It no longer controls the banks, foreign trade, or the course of foreign exchange. Therefore, any investment project in our country belongs to the State. The bourgeoisie no longer invests—it subsists.

Toward the end of the speech, Arce broached the idea of “putting an end to all this artifice of pluralism” after the elections, but indicated that the Sandinistas had been operating on the advice of their “strategic allies” (Cuba and the Soviet Union), who “tell us not to declare ourselves Marxist-Leninists, not to declare socialism… We’ve talked about this being the first experience of building socialism with the dollars of capitalism.”


At the time this article was written, Holt Ruffin was executive director of the World Without War Council of Greater Seattle. The views expressed here are his only and are not intended to represent the views of the Council or any other persons associated with it.

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