Sandinistas Are Defeated in Nicaraguan Elections Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Sandinistas, a revolutionary regime that had toppled the Somoza family dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979, held and lost multiparty elections in February, 1990.

Summary of Event

The stunning electoral defeat in 1990 of the Sandinistas (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or FSLN) by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro’s diverse National Opposition Union National Opposition Union (Nicaragua) (Unión Nacional Opositora, or UNO) coalition was unprecedented. Never before had a revolutionary regime run the considerable risk of submitting itself to open multiparty elections. The FSLN’s crushing setback at the polls, in one of the most scrutinized elections ever held, took its rightful place alongside all the momentous changes under way in Eastern Europe and South Africa at that time. Daniel Ortega Saavedra’s decision to test his party’s waning popularity before the Nicaraguan electorate and to relinquish power to a fragile eleven-party union that included some of the same people who for nine years had waged a relentless war against the Sandinistas reversed the conventional wisdom about hegemonic one-party revolutionary states. Sandinistas Nicaragua;elections (1990) Elections;Nicaragua [kw]Sandinistas Are Defeated in Nicaraguan Elections (Feb. 25, 1990) [kw]Nicaraguan Elections, Sandinistas Are Defeated in (Feb. 25, 1990) [kw]Elections, Sandinistas Are Defeated in Nicaraguan (Feb. 25, 1990) Sandinistas Nicaragua;elections (1990) Elections;Nicaragua [g]Central America;Feb. 25, 1990: Sandinistas Are Defeated in Nicaraguan Elections[07640] [g]Nicaragua;Feb. 25, 1990: Sandinistas Are Defeated in Nicaraguan Elections[07640] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 25, 1990: Sandinistas Are Defeated in Nicaraguan Elections[07640] Ortega Saavedra, Daniel Chamorro, Violeta Barrios de Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;Nicaragua

Why did the FSLN dare call for elections? Why did the party lose so convincingly? The answers to these questions do not lie in glib, although not completely false, statements such as “Nicaraguans voted with their pocketbooks” or “Soviet-style command economies do not work.” Instead, the answers rest in Nicaragua’s history and its often near-suicidal wish to test North American resolve in its backyard. The symbols of this political campaign make it evident that Nicaraguans viewed the elections as a referendum on war and peace.

For eleven years, the Sandinistas had cast themselves as the defenders of the fatherland. Their presidential candidate, Daniel Ortega Saavedra, had spent his entire life fighting the Nicaraguan establishment and its patrons in Washington, D.C. Jailed by the dictatorship of Antonio Somoza Debayle Somoza Debayle, Antonio for seven years, a leader of the victorious insurrection of July, 1979, a member of the first Junta of National Reconstruction (along with Violeta de Chamorro), winner of the presidency in the 1984 election, chief proponent within the FSLN of the Central American peace plan, and defender of the nation against foreign intervention during the Contra war, Ortega symbolized the Sandinistas’ dogged determination to create an authentic homegrown revolution in the face of U.S. hegemony.

Ortega’s rise to power did not occur overnight. In fact, Ortega at first seemed uncomfortable in the limelight. No dogmatist like his counterpart, the formidable intellectual and fiery orator Interior Minister Tomás Borge Martínez, Borge Martínez, Tomás Ortega was awkward in public. His public speeches were long, rambling, and uninspiring. In the first heady years of the revolution, Ortega was just one among equals. A bylaw passed by the FSLN in 1979 had prohibited its militants from publicizing specific members of the nine-person National Directorate that governed the party and the nation. The comandantes deliberately tried to forestall the creation of a cult of personality from enveloping one leader, as had occurred in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Slowly, steadily, and perceptibly, however, Ortega’s star began to ascend. As he became more comfortable in public, as he met all the challenges placed before him during the difficult war years, and as his moderate group within the fractious National Directorate convinced hard-liners, such as Borge and Bayardo Arce, that the FSLN had to embrace the peace accords proposed by Oscar Arias Sánchez Arias Sánchez, Oscar and push ahead with the implementation of a pluralistic political process, the cult of personality grew.

Political pluralism had been one of the cornerstones of the FSLN platform, and, true to their promise, the Sandinistas held open multiparty elections in November, 1984. Although the elections were denounced by the U.S. presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;Nicaragua which convinced a number of Nicaraguan political parties to withdraw from the campaign, various international observer teams reported that the FSLN’s victory, with 67 percent of the vote, was “clean.” Given the legacy of electoral fraud left by the Somoza family dynasty (1936-1979), which religiously held rigged elections every four years, the 1984 campaign, which featured political parties to the right and to the left of the FSLN, was an important step toward pluralistic democracy in Nicaragua, although it was not without elements of FSLN manipulation. In 1987, a constitution was promulgated that reaffirmed the electoral process, setting the stage for the 1990 campaign.

Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra (right) watches as Violeta Barrios de Chamorro succeeds him as Nicaragua’s president after her party defeated the Sandinistas in free elections in early 1990.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The incumbent Sandinistas moved up the date of the elections from November to February, 1990, to give the opposition less time to organize its campaign. The FSLN had the formidable task of convincing voters to look beyond the bad times—the suffering and privation of the war years, the damaging effects of Hurricane Joan, the economic embargo, the shortages of medicines, the reappearance of malnutrition in the countryside, the high prices of no-longer-subsidized foodstuffs, ruinous inflation, and the despised universal military draft. The Sandinistas used rhetoric designed to convince the electorate that a vote for UNO meant a return to Somoza rule and a surrender to the Contras. Contras Throughout the campaign, Ortega blamed the country’s difficulties on the U.S. government, although his own foreign policy alignment with the Soviet Union and Cuba and his efforts to assist El Salvador’s Marxist resistance figured into the equation.

Unlike many in the United States who believed that the Contra strategy, backed by the Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was a complete failure, most informed observers realized that the Reagan administration’s “freedom fighters” and the entire “low-intensity” campaign had served their purposes: to destabilize the Sandinista regime, to undercut prized social programs by diverting funds to pay for the war, and to ruin the economic well-being of the Nicaraguan people, thereby undercutting popular support for the revolution by pressuring Western European governments to cut or suspend aid to Nicaragua while denying multilateral loans. The war had left 30,000 dead, hundreds of thousands in exile (an estimated 175,000 alone in Miami), and families bitterly divided. Nicaraguans were tired and beaten down. It was clear that Reagan’s destabilization campaign and the Contra strategy had weakened the Nicaraguan economy and forced the Sandinistas to embrace the Central American peace process.

Since 1978, real wages had fallen more than 70 percent. The economy was on the verge of collapse, even though the inflation rate had been cut from an astronomical 35,000 percent in 1988 to 1,600 percent in 1989 through austerity measures such as a 50 percent cutback in government spending that would have made the International Monetary Fund proud and made socialist revolutionaries cringe. Gutted in the last years were the pride and joy of the revolution, its health and education programs. In some areas of the countryside, the Nicaraguan government provided precious little support for health services except for minimal neonatal care and vaccinations.

Faced with these kinds of difficulties, Ortega and the FSLN campaigned on the basis of their heroic struggle against the United States. At heart, Nicaraguans were probably the most nationalistic people in the Americas. The FSLN implicitly staked a claim as the rightful heir to a historic tradition of nationalistic Nicaraguan patriots. Nationalism was a strident issue at a time when, by all accounts, Nicaraguans were weary of war. Ortega’s campaign staff, some imported from the French Socialist Party, realized the dilemma. Ortega also had to appear to be a man of peace. He had to convince the electorate that if the FSLN won, peace would be just around the corner, that the FSLN could negotiate successfully with the U.S. presidential administration of George H. W. Bush, and that the economic blockade would be lifted. In the week before the election, Barricada and El Nuevo Diario, the Sandinista newspapers, were filled with stories reporting that President Bush was ready to recognize a Sandinista victory and that the demobilization of the hated Contras was imminent.

The FSLN’s attempt to convince the general public that “Yankee imperialism” was to blame for the economic collapse was only partially successful. Many Nicaraguans believed that Sandinista inefficiency, mismanagement, corruption, and privilege had also contributed to the existing economic malaise. The Sandinista “mixed economy” model tried to be all things to all people. The regime’s inconsistency in the application of government policies befuddled many peasants and workers. Peasants at times found it cheaper to purchase their food at subsidized state-run stores than to produce their own staples.

Corruption and privilege were not invented by the FSLN, but one of the cornerstones of the revolution had been to make sure that Somoza-style cronyism did not reappear in the new society. Although even the FSLN’s biggest critics would not propose that Sandinista largesse was in the same league as that under President Somoza (1967-1979), enough government perks—houses, cars, private clubs, and import tax exemptions—were evident to raise eyebrows and cause Nicaraguans to wonder where the revolutionary spirit had gone.

It is within this context that the FSLN’s electoral promotional campaign must be understood. Tens of thousands of T-shirts, hats, red-and-black scarves, posters, and even condoms were delivered in truckloads to neighborhood campaign headquarters. In rural communities and working-class barrios, Sandinista electoral propaganda was painted on countless homes and buildings. Even conservative estimates of the cost of the campaign put it at more than twenty million dollars. The result was that Nicaraguans viewed the Sandinista campaign as a cruel hoax. For years the FSLN had been preaching austerity. Few could afford meat, and medicines were beyond the reach of the poor, yet now hats and shirts were being given away by the truckload.

If the FSLN had to run on its past as well as on Washington’s war, UNO had the same vexing problem. The coalition, which was cobbled together in Washington, included eleven (sometimes fourteen) political “parties”—in the colorful Nicaraguan vernacular, “couch parties,” because all the members of a party could sit together on one sofa. Many of the politicians that composed this splintered coalition had pasts that linked them directly to the counterrevolution and the U.S. government. Within the inner circle of Violeta de Chamorro were Alfredo César César, Alfredo and Alfonso Robelo, Robelo, Alfonso both members of the Contra directorate. César, a renegade and a son-in-law of Chamorro, made things difficult for UNO when it was discovered during the campaign that he had written a letter to Contra commander Enrique Bermúdez Varela, Bermúdez Varela, Enrique asking him to keep his troops in the field until the elections to keep the pressure on the Sandinistas. Throughout the campaign, the Contras attempted to disrupt the electoral process. Numerous deaths in Jinotega in the north and on the Atlantic Coast were attributed to Contra attacks—seven during the last week of the campaign alone. Finally, Chamorro’s sensationalistic newspaper La Prensa had been subsidized heavily by the CIA throughout the war years.

Faced with Chamorro’s obvious limitations, including lack of political experience (she had participated briefly in the junta but withdrew for health reasons), her political handlers built their campaign around her strengths. At the final UNO rally in Managua a week before the election, sixty thousand supporters cheered Chamorro’s call for reconciliation. Her message was simple and direct: She alone could heal Nicaragua’s extended familial body politic. In addition, she assured the crowd that upon her election the Contras would be disbanded, relations with Washington would be renewed, the despised military conscription law would be abolished, the bloated army and bureaucracy would be pared down, and the country would be opened to foreign investment and economic recovery. Strikingly attractive, the silver-haired, sixty-year-old candidate wore a white lace dress and was escorted to and from the rally in a white wagon with a matching canopy. Six Nicaraguan cowboys rode beside her on horseback, and as she passed by the throng in her cart, she extended her hands toward the crowd and upward, as if reaching for the sky. The message was obvious to religious Nicaraguans.

If Ortega was the nationalistic warrior, then Chamorro was the holy redeemer. Her message was peace. Economic recovery was important, but many of Nicaragua’s economic problems were the results of war. The electorate essentially believed that Ortega’s confrontational style would not suffice. In retrospect, it is easy to see that the compulsory military draft was a key issue. Chamorro repudiated it, but Ortega said only that the military could be cut. Ironically, the draft was one of the few revolutionary laws the pragmatic Sandinistas had ever passed. The notion that everyone in Nicaragua had to serve in the military, not just the poor, was something truly egalitarian. Nicaraguans knew that UNO had been created and funded by the U.S. government, so they believed that when Chamorro promised peace with the yanquis, she could deliver.


With some exceptions, the electoral process on February 25, 1990, was orderly and quiet. More than three thousand election observers blanketed Nicaragua, including teams from the United Nations and the Organization of American States. A prestigious international delegation had been assembled by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;postpresidency diplomacy Local electoral committees charged with oversight of the election consisted of supporters from the FSLN, UNO, and other political parties. They were models of nonpartisanship. Poll watchers from all political parties checked their computerized registration rolls to make sure that there was no fraud. After the polls closed at 6:00 p.m., the local juntas painstakingly counted and recounted all the ballots for president, for members of the National Assembly, and for municipal posts.

The Sandinistas lost the 1990 election because their nationalistic message was set aside. Nicaraguans quietly stated through their vote that essentials may be delayed for a brief period as a result of war and patriotic fervor, but no society can be expected to sacrifice indefinitely. In the election’s aftermath, the Chamorro administration, which received more than 53 percent of the vote, faced several daunting tasks: It had to bring peace and reconciliation to a society that had been at war with itself for almost two decades, bolster a moribund economy, and continue the process of political pluralism initiated by the Sandinistas. The FSLN, which received about 40 percent of the vote, represented a formidable opposition to UNO in the National Assembly. Chamorro and her advisers found the hard-fought electoral campaign much simpler than the thorny political and economic problems that faced their administration.

Although Chamorro’s personal popularity faded, support for Ortega did not revive to any substantial degree in the decade after his 1990 election defeat. Subsequent elections in 1996 and 2001 saw the centrist Liberal Alliance, Liberal Alliance (Nicaragua) led by Chamorro’s colleagues and successors, consistently defeat the FSLN under Ortega by about 46 to 36 percent of the overall vote. The historic election of 1990 thus seemed to represent a true reflection of the desire of the majority of Nicaraguans, who were ready for an unequivocal reversal from the heady days of FSLN revolution and its attendant woes. Ortega remained an important figure in Nicaraguan politics, however, and was elected president once more in 2006. Sandinistas Nicaragua;elections (1990) Elections;Nicaragua

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Booth, John A. The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985. Solid academic survey of the Sandinista victory in 1979 explains the forces that led to the ouster of Somoza and the first few years of FSLN rule.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christian, Shirley. Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family. New York: Random House, 1985. A journalist’s account of the first years of the revolution, written from a decidedly anti-Sandinista perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dodson, Michael, and Laura Nuzzi O’Shaughnessy. Nicaragua’s Other Revolution: Religious Faith and Political Struggle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990. Examines the role of one of the most powerful influences on the revolutionary process in Nicaragua: religion. Presents solid analysis of the impact of liberation theology and the split in the Catholic Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Enriquez, Laura J. Agrarian Reform and Class Consciousness in Nicaragua. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Provides a thorough, if sympathetic, analysis of the Sandinista agrarian reform efforts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilbert, Dennis. Sandinistas: The Party and the Revolution. New York: B. B. Blackwell, 1988. A political scientist’s astute analysis of the FSLN leadership and its conflictive role prior to and after 1979.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Preston, Julia. “The Defeat of the Sandinistas.” New York Review of Books 37 (April 12, 1990): 25-29. Presents a detailed journalistic account of the stunning Chamorro victory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vilas, Carlos M. State, Class, and Ethnicity in Nicaragua: Capitalist Modernization and Revolutionary Change on the Atlantic Coast. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1989. Presents perceptive analysis of revolutionary Nicaragua, with a focus on one of the key problems the Sandinistas faced: the integration of Miskito, Suma, and Rama Indian groups on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Thomas W. Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. 4th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2003. History of Nicaragua covers the nation’s culture, economics, foreign relations, and politics. Includes thorough discussion of the Sandinista revolution and the 1990 elections.

Somoza Is Forced Out of Power in Nicaragua

Iran-Contra Scandal

Arias Sánchez Receives the Nobel Peace Prize

Categories: History