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Sandinista Revolution: The Cold War’s Guerilla Warfare

Sandinista Revolution: The Cold War’s Guerilla Warfare

The 1979 revolution in Nicaragua by the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional was seen by the world as “the new road to guerrilla warfare”[1] that would lead the way for the rest of Central America. The Nicaraguan Revolution presented a new spark of hope to the longtime communist goal—then stalling—of spreading Marxist ideology and eliminating U.S. influence in the area.

Since the 1930s the Somoza family had been ruling Nicaragua. They achieved power with the help of a peasant movement and expanded the country’s commercial agriculture and industrial sectors following World War II. However, the influence of various intellectual and social trends contrary to the Somoza rule led to instability and agitation in Nicaragua. Movements such as certain Marxist-tinged strands of Liberation Theology, which stressed social justice and the need to dismantle existing political structures, and outright Marxism, grew increasingly popular among rural trade and labor unions.

Following the successful end of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the Somoza regime doubled down on oppressive tactics out of fear that a similar wave of upheaval would reach Managua.  During the 1970s, amidst intensifying labor upheaval in Nicaragua, Somoza declared all opposition parties illegal.

Despite the regime’s tightening grip, the 1970s would mark a pivotal phase for Nicaragua. The increasing unpopularity of the Somoza dictatorship lent credibility to a group that had been trying to overthrow Somoza for more than 15 years, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN). The FSLN was a revolutionary coalition that brought various Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups together.

As one of the FSNL’s leaders, Humberto Ortega, wrote in 1979, “in essence we are ideologically and politically the representatives of the interests of the exploited, of the class historically destined to bury capitalism and anti-imperialism: the working class.”

 “In essence we are…the representatives of the interests of the exploited” -Ortegashare quote on Twitter

In April 1979, the FSLN launched a coup that forced Anastasio Somoza to take refuge in a bunker. Once Somoza was cornered, thousands of Nicaraguans rose to help the guerrilla groups put an end to the dictatorship. Somoza eventually gave up and fled the country, forfeiting power to the FSLN.

Once in power, the Sandinistas had a clear objective to end North American imperialism. To achieve this goal they would need to implement a foreign policy that could sustain the revolutionary fervor at home. But the FSLN desperately needed resources and outside help to maintain their hold on power—help that mostly came from communist allies like the Soviet Union and Cuba.

The second time the KGB made contact with the Sandinistas was in 1960, when Nicaraguan exile Edelberto Torres Espinoza, a close friend of Fonseca’s and the general secretary of the anti-Somoza United Front was recruited by Russian agents. He was seen by the KGB as “committed to the liberation of the whole of Latin America and saw revolution in Nicaragua as simply one step along the path.”[2]KGB contact with the Sandinistas began two decades before the 1979 revolution. FSLN leader Carlos Fonseca Amador had been recruited and trained by the KGB since 1957; the Russian spy agency saw in Fonseca a natural ally in their quest to destabilize and revolutionize the Latin American region. As a young man he was the only Nicaraguan to attend the Sixth World Youth Festival in Moscow.

Early on the KGB began providing financial support to the Sandinistas. A report from the Head of the KGB Alexander Shelepin to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in July of 1961 confirms that the KGB had already coordinated relations between the Sandinistas and the Cuban and Soviet Bloc intelligence agencies, as well as provided more than $10,000 to the still-fledgling movement. At this point, the objective of the KGB was to create a “sabotage-terrorism group.”

After failed guerrilla attacks in 1963 and 1967, the Sandanistas adopted a more silent, less confrontational role, focused more on disinformation and recruitment than on violent attacks. The KGB supported them throughout this time with covert counterintelligence operations aimed at the Somoza regime, American non-military organizations, and anti-Castro refugees in Nicaragua. When the Revolution of 1979 proved successful, it came as something of a surprise to the FSLN’s allies in Moscow.

Soviet funding of the FSLN rapidly increased once the revolutionary coalition was installed in power in Nicaragua. Between 1979 and December 1983 the Soviet bloc donated $859.45 million. The Soviet Union alone donated $443.7,[3] making Nicaragua second only to Cuba in the amount of aid it received from the USSR. The aid mostly came in the form of credit, military equipment, and infrastructure investment. The Kremlin invested between $100-125 million a year in munitions and weapons technology, in addition to providing tanks, helicopters, artillery, and armored vehicles.

Sandanistas were successful in attracting support from Marxist allies in their own region, too; Fidel Castro had backed the Sandinistas since their formation. His help “stemmed from the same motives that had long driven Cuba’s revolution-for-export business: ideological conviction, antipathy to right wing dictatorships, and the hope of finding a continental ally.” Castro himself said that “the Nicaraguan revolution was outstanding for its heroism, its perseverance, the perseverance of its combatants – because it is not the victory of a single day, it is a victory after twenty years of struggle, twenty years of planning.”[4]

Cuba’s major contribution to the Nicaraguan revolution was political. Cuban leaders mediated the reunification of the FSLN in 1978, after a temporary split-up in 1973. Cuban advisors also helped coordinate all guerilla activities in the country for years before the 1979 revolution.

By 1979 Nicaragua was the country benefiting most from Cuban support. However, given Cuba’s own financial difficulties, Castro helped mainly through sending man-power to support the building up of Nicaragua’s infrastructure. Hundreds of FSLN guerillas were trained by Cuban intelligence services. Cuba sent more than 200 hundred teachers, 550 medical personal, 1000 construction workers, and 200 military advisors to Nicaragua for the purposes of supporting and sustaining the all-important revolutionary fervor. Cuba also helped with the construction of sugar mills, oil refineries, agriculture.

The Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 serves as the perfect example of the Soviet and the Cuban strategy of “exporting the communist revolution.” Nicaragua’s revolution was the beginning of “the most intense phase of Latin America’s Cold War,” according to Hal Brand’s book Latin America’s Cold War. The Sandinista’s victory was the prelude to even bloodier revolutionary conflicts in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s, conflicts which would serve to cause unrest and instability in the whole region. Though Sandinistas eventually lost power in 1990, the 1979 Revolution marked a turning point in the Cold War where Soviet energy and interest shifted from South America to Central America. That legacy extends to today under the current Sandinista president Daniel Ortega.


[1] Andrews and Mitrokhin. 1999. The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World.

[2] IBID. Page 41

[3] Schwab and Sims. 1985. Revolutionary Nicaragua’s Relations with the European States 1979-1983.

[4] Andrews and Mitrokhin. 1999. The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World.