The Sandinista National Liberation Front, founded in 1961, at first posed little threat to the Somoza dynasty, which was solidly entrenched in power since the mid-1930’s. After the assassination of opposition journalist and editor of La Prensa Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, however, violent rebellion against President Anastasio Somoza Debayle spread throughout Nicaragua as the moderate opposition joined forces with the Sandinista guerrillas. A seesaw military struggle culminated in Somoza’s flight into exile in July 1979.
Shirley Christian, currently a foreign-affairs reporter for The New York Times, was formerly an Associated Press reporter for the Miami Herald, and has contributed stories to The Atlantic Monthly and The New Republic. In 1981, she won the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting and was the first to win that award solo. She also won the George Polk Award for the best foreign reporting in perilous circumstances. In this work, she stresses the crucial role played by President Jimmy Carter in the Sandinista triumph. Christian tells the reader a fascinating inside story of how an inexperienced American administration, traumatized by memories of the Vietnam War and guilt-ridden over earlier American interventions in Central America, proved unable to do anything to avert a Sandinista takeover. According to Christian, this unwillingness to intervene prevailed despite an explicit warning from Harold Brown, the United States secretary of defense, that the Sandinista front was probably dominated by Marxist-Leninists. Following the overthrow of Somoza, the Carter Administration watched helplessly as moderates were gradually but inexorably squeezed out of the new revolutionary regime.
Some Americans praise the Sandinista government as the first regime in the country’s history to pursue policies favoring the poor majority rather than the upper classes; such observers tend to view opposition to the new regime within Nicaragua as reflecting the class interests of the well-to-do. Christian, unlike such American sympathizers with the Sandinistas, does not believe that the political history of Nicaragua can be interpreted as a simple conflict between rich and poor. The peasants of Somoza’s Nicaragua, she insists, were long indifferent to the appeals of the Sandinista guerrillas. Somoza’s regime, she argues, was overthrown only after it had incurred the opposition of the overwhelming majority of the Nicaraguans, including the wealthy. The split over Sandinista policies, Christian shows, runs not between the educated elite and the masses, but within the elite itself, and sometimes even within elite families: Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, widow of the martyred newspaper editor, is a vocal critic of the Sandinistas, while one of her sons, Carlos Fernando Chamorro Barrios, is a fervent partisan of the new regime.
(The entire section is 1186 words.)