Growth of Opposition, 1981-83

Nicaragua Table of Contents

Domestic support for the new Sandinista government was not universal, however. The ethnic minorities from the Caribbean coast, neglected by national governments since colonial times, rejected Sandinista efforts to incorporate them into the national mainstream and demanded autonomy. Government forces responded by forcibly relocating many of these ethnic groups, leading many indigenous groups during the early 1980s to join groups opposing the government.

From late 1979 through 1980, the Carter administration made efforts to work with FSLN policies. However, when President Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, the United States government launched a campaign to isolate the Sandinista government. Claiming that Nicaragua, with assistance from Cuba and the Soviet Union, was supplying arms to the guerrillas in El Salvador, the Reagan administration suspended all United States aid to Nicaragua on January 23, 1981. The Nicaraguan government denied all United States allegations and charged the United States with leading an international campaign against it. Later that year, the Reagan administration authorized support for groups trying to overthrow the Sandinistas.

Using an initial budget of US$19 million and camps in southern Honduras as a staging area, the United States supported groups of disgruntled former members of the National Guards. These groups became known as the Contras (short for contrarevolucionarios). The Contras initially consisted of former members of the National Guards who had fled to Honduras after the fall of President Somoza. By the end of 1981, however, the group's membership had multiplied because peasants from the north and ethnic groups from the Caribbean coast had joined in the counterrevolutionary war. Nevertheless, early Contra leadership was represented mostly by former members of the National Guard; this fact made the movement highly unpopular among most Nicaraguans.

The Contras established operational bases in Honduras from which they launched hit-and-run raids throughout northern Nicaragua. The charismatic Edén Pastora abandoned the Sandinista revolution in July 1981 and formed his own guerrilla group, which operated in the southern part of Nicaragua from bases in Costa Rica. The United Nicaraguan Opposition operated in the northwest, the Opposition Block of the South operated in the southeast, and the Nicaraguan Coast Indian Unity operated in the northwest. Although the Sandinista army was larger and better equipped than the Contras, the antigovernment campaign became a serious threat to the FSLN government, largely through damage to the economy.

As the Contra war intensified, the Sandinistas' tolerance of political pluralism waned. The Sandinistas imposed emergency laws to ban criticism and organization of political opposition. Most social programs suffered as a result of the war because the Sandinista regime was forced to increase military spending until half of its budget went for defense. Agricultural production also declined sharply as refugees fled areas of conflict.

The bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, although supportive of the anti-Somoza movement during the late 1970s, later opposed the Sandinista regime in the 1980s. The church's hierarchy was hurt during the first years of the revolution by the active role of its radical branch, known as the Popular Church of Liberation Theology, whose philosophy became heavily influence by Liberation Theology, as well as by radical priests in the Sandinista government. Ernesto Cardenal Martínez, a Jesuit priest who had joined the Sandinista Revolution, became the minister of culture for the FSLN government. Father Miguel D'Escoto Brockman (also known as Jerónimo) was appointed minister of foreign relations, and Father Edgardo Parrales Castillo was named minister of social welfare. However, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo (the former archbishop of Managua) soon became as critical of the FSLN as he had been of the Somoza dictatorship. The cardinal's opposition brought internal divisions within the Roman Catholic Church, with one side, the hierarchy, rejecting the Marxist philosophy of the Sandinista leadership, and the other, the Popular Church, participating in the civic struggle of the people. The bishops distrusted the Sandinista revolutionary ideology and its base of support. The Popular Church, however, wanted to play a part in the revolutionary changes affecting the masses.

Conflict within the Roman Catholic Church broke into the open when Pope John Paul II visited Nicaragua in March 1983. Discussions over details of the pontiff's visit had been tense. The government provided free transportation for an estimated half million Nicaraguans to witness the highlight of the visit, an outdoor mass in Managua. At the mass, the Pope refused to offer a prayer for the souls of deceased soldiers. Antigovernment demonstrators began chanting, "We love the Pope." Their calls were soon drowned out by progovernment members of the crowd chanting, "We want peace." The entire mass was disrupted, and the pope angrily asked the crowd for silence several times. The entire spectacle was broadcast to the world and was portrayed as a deliberate attempt by the Sandinistas to disrupt the mass. The event proved to be a tremendous public relations debacle for the Sandinistas and a coup for the Nicaraguan church hierarchy.

By 1981 the country's most influential papers, La Prensa, joined the growing chorus of dissent against the Sandinista government. Under the state of emergency declared in 1982, the paper was subject to prior censorship. Despite several instances of suspended publication, some mandated by the Ministry of Interior, and some in protest by the paper's editor over cut copy, the paper continued to operate. In anticipation of upcoming elections, the government eased censorship. Increased latitude in what it could publish only increased La Prensa's bitter criticism of the government.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress