257. Telegram 3875 From the Embassy in Nicaragua to the Department of State1
3875. Subject: FSLN Prospers in Gloomy Political Atmosphere. Ref: Managua 2325.
Summary: Sentiment in favor of the FSLN as the only active vehicle to challenge the regime seems to have grown in the past several weeks. This is generally attributed to the silencing of the overt opposition through censorship rendering it incapable of competing for the anti-government constituency. Overt opposition groups are experiencing grass roots pressures to cooperate with the FSLN as impatience among youth and unrest among campesinos makes itself felt. Although the FSLN is self-proclaimed Castro-Communist, its wider appear is based on its ability to harass and humble the regime rather than on ideological grounds. However, the FSLN seems ill-equipped to exploit this new sympathy at the present time in view of the small number of men under arms, inefficient organization and lack of a political front. Much of the unfavorable atmospherics for the regime have been created by a series of real or imagined problems in the past several weeks and the GON’s heavy handed attempts to cope with them. While the FSLN threat may be exaggerated at the moment, the growing skepticism about Somoza’s willingness to liberalize politically seems likely to insure a large permanent constituency for advocates of violent change. End summary.
1. We have observed a change in the political mood over the past several weeks consisting of greater uneasiness, a more oppresive attitude of the regime towards its political opponents and a sense of desperation of the overt opposition. This has caused, or coincided with a rise in the stock of the clandestine opposition, the FSLN. By all reports, the degree of expectation about the potential for success of the Sandinistas has grown together with the number of people who seem to be sympathetic to them. The phenomenon, strongly felt among younger people, has created waves which are lapping at the feet of their elders as well. There follows an Embassy attempt, [less than 1 line not declassified] to analyse the phenomenon and place it in perspective.[Page 683]
2. The air is currently ripe with unfounded rumors of widespread FSLN activities and successes. Hardly a day goes by without a new canard; e.g., an assassination attempt on Somoza, battles involving dozens of casualties in the mountains, shootouts with Guardia in the suburbs of Managua. While the bulk of these stories are false or distorted beyond recognition, their persistence and velocity reflect either widespread wish-fantasizing or genuine disquiet among the citizenry. The acknowledged acts of the FSLN during this period, e.g., the taking over of a Managua radio station, clashes with National Guard in Leon, Nueva Segovia and Matagalpa, have tended to fuel speculation about “what is really happening” rather than to allay it. The admission by the GON of a clearcut defeat for the first time in a clash on September 9 (I 6 870 0960 75), rather than having the (presumably) intended effect of improving credibility, merely confirmed for many what they had been whispering about for many weeks.
3. The principal culprit is censorship. Applied under the state of siege at the time of the December 27, 1974 Los Robles incident as an understandable response to a public order threat of then unknown dimensions, it has been resorted to in the past several weeks as a means to blot out all media criticism of the regime. The Somozas have been reluctant in the past to invoke censorship out of respect for hemispheric opinion and recognition that a relatively free media has provided a political safety valve. But these transitional considerations appear to have yielded in the past few years before the temptation of governing in an environment free of media criticism. The disingenuous arguments cited for the prolongation of censorship long beyond its need in terms of the Los Robles affair encourage the impression that it will be around in some form for quite a while. Somoza stated in December that it would be maintained until he got to the bottom of the Los Robles incident. He later interpreted this privately to mean at the end of the military court of investigation. Although the real work of the court terminated three months ago, Somoza’s son told us in June that the life of the court was being extended because of new evidence (Managua 2325). As that story appeared increasingly dubious as the weeks went by, Min-Government Mora confided to EmbOffs in July that censorship was continued out of fear of an unrestrained La Prensa during a time of potential labor conflicts this summer. When the labor conflicts gave evidence that they would be resolved peacefully, Somoza told Defatt in August that the state of siege had to be maintained so that all accused before the military court would be tried in one place. We have concluded that Somoza, and some of his ministers, who have vested interests in a controlled press, will be reluctant to give up the secure situation afforded by censorship.
4. The primary victim of these developments is the overt opposition—the Parliamentary (Paguagista) Con[Page 684]servatives, the Aguero Conservatives and UDEL. Already divided and hovering on the brink of credibility following the political events of the past three years, the open opposition has had to depend upon a minimum of tolerance from the regime in order to appear as worthy recipients of political support. Although the scale of political discontent so sharply illuminated by the public reaction to the Los Robles incident seemed to reveal potential constituency available to the group best able to exploit it, the three groups have been prevented by the state of siege from capitalizing on it. Aguero, dependent upon the radio for reports of his activities, has nearly become a shadow public figure. UDEL, which aimed to utilize La Prensa to trumpet its cause, has been stymied. And the Parliamentary Conservatives have debated corruption, political equity and censorship itself on the floors of Congress before a score of spectators. As few in the public are therefore aware of the activities of these groups they are being viewed increasingly as irrelevant. The fortunes and spirits of the traditional oppositionists have not been so low since the death of Somoza Garcia in 1956.
5. In the opposition to Somoza, only the Sandinistas seem to have benefited from the newly created situation. Politically interested students, who have been the object of intensive UDEL wooing, appear to have opted rather definitively for the FSLN. The 30-year-old Social Christian leader of UDEL in Managua who has been working with students recently told us that what began as a trickle in the immediate aftermath of the Los Robles attack has now become a stream of converts for the FSLN. UDEL has also been bombarded from within by young people attending its meeting urging it to come to terms with the FSLN. Two recent provincial meetings were disrupted by bullying on the FSLN question and a national level USDEL youth seminar in mid-August was barely held in control when the problem was debated. UDEL, however, has remained firm in its refusal to consider an alliance with the FSLN, but much of UDEL’s present position towards the FSLN is predicated on the FSLN’s rejection of UDEL as a bourgeoise gradualist mechanism no different from the Somocistas. The most forthright opponent within UDEL has been the Communist Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN), which objects to the exclusivist philosophy of the FSLN, but whose hostility could vanish overnight if soundings for cooperation made through mutual Cuban contacts bear fruit. [less than 1 line not declassified]
6. Aguero, the strongest of the opposition leaders among the campesinos and the most vehemently anti-Communist, has also seen his strength in the countryside eroded by the wave of sympathy for the Sandinistas. He has told us that his cadres in Boaco, Leon and Matagalpa have come to him asking for “orientation” as to their relations with the FSLN. When Aguero was regaling the Ambassador two weeks [Page 685] ago with tales of his still great popularity, one of his top advisors, sitting next to him, turned to an accompanying EmbOff and confided that his chief was living in the past and Aguero’s former constituency was now largely in the Sandinistas’ hands if they knew how to exploit it.
7. Although the Sandinista boom has certainly touched youth and all urban classes, it has made its biggest impact, unsurprisingly, in the rural areas of the departments of Matagalpa, Jinotega, Zelaya and Boaco. It is difficult to quantify the phenomenon accurately with the intelligence tools at our disposal, but nearly every anecdotal report that has reached the Embassy in the past few months supports the view that there is great unrest, growing cooperation between campesinos and guerrillas and increasing latent support of the FSLN cause. This was acknowledged at the two most (secret) meetings of the National Liberal Directorate in June and August. At the first, President Somoza expressed his concern about the alienation of the campesinos and for the first time asked his political leaders for advice. At the second meeting, it was accepted that a “Vietcongization” had taken place in certain areas (Jinotega and Matagalpa) wherein arms-bearing campesinos were joining the guerrillas for an occasional exercise while carrying on their normal activities. A liberal senator from the areas has told us that this has not been seen in Nicaragua since the days of Sandino.
8. None of this should be construed as meaning that a wave of sympathy for Marxist solutions is about to engulf the country. All are aware that the FSLN is a self-proclaimed Castro-Communist organization, but its growing popularity has taken place not because of, but in spite of its ideological orientation. Although Castro has an appeal for certain student elements and among some particularly embittered campesinos, populism, let alone Marxism, has had little resonance here traditionally and not much more now. The FSLN appearance is largely political, attracting those frustrated with their ability to end 40 years of the Somoza system. With the current eclipse of the overt opposition, the Sandinistas have emerged as the only political organization which appears to be challenging the regime. Many of the anti-Communist opposition look wishfully at the FSLN as a catalyst to either bring down the regime or demoralize it so much that it would be forced to make political reforms. They rationalize that many Sandinista activists are not Marxists, but scions of prominent liberal and conservative families opposed to Somoza on political grounds. Even if the FSLN is victorious in the field, they argue it would not be able to form a government in the absence of substantial ideological support and administrative experience. Nevertheless, if this kind of sentiment does not necessarily indicate positive support for communism, it does suggest a growing toleration among oppositionists of the presence of radical groups with whom they might share mutual short-term objectives. It is perhaps not sur[Page 686]prising in a country whose political maturation stopped in 1936 that there is a widespread inclination to accept an image of the guerrillas more in the context of the “freedom fighters” of 1950s than later despite the protestations of the guerrillas themselves that they have other things in mind.
9. Despite the acknowledged growth in their popularity and image, the FSLN “threat” may, ironically, be illusory. While estimates of Sandinista strength are rather tentative, [less than 1 line not declassified] the organization embraces about 140 trained in arms ([garble] of whom are out of the country) and a support network of approximately 160, principally peasants and students. In recent clashes with government troops, the guerrillas have shown courage, but not good training, especially high intelligence or great imagination. Their organization is loose and compartmentalized, which though minimizing the possibilities of effective penetration, also precludes a high degree of efficiency and coordination. While the FSLN controls the Revolutionary Students’ Federation (FER) at National University campuses and has recently begun to organize activities through front groups among secondary students, it has not even attempted to establish a broader-basic overt front as the political counterpart to its guerrilla apparatus. It is thus minimally equipped at the moment to absorb and exploit the latent support it seems to enjoy. The numbers of FSLN guerrillas currently in the mountains may actually be somewhat less than in other past periods of high guerrilla activity. However, there are more areas of activity than there have been in the past, there seems to be more money available to the FSLN than there has been before (the ransom money from the Los Robles attack appears to have been put at their disposal) and they possess a greater mystique than any guerrillas since Sandino. Consequently, they probably have greater potential for creating disorder.
10. Much of the change in atmosphere has been the result of a confluence of problems in the past several weeks and the GON’s own attempts to cope with real or imagined threats to its stability. More clashes with guerrillas, the Jack Anderson articles, the disproportionate fear of labor conflicts and the changes at the Embassy have had a disquieting effect on Somoza. He has viewed otherwise unrelated combinations of events as conspiracies conjured up by old nemesis Pedro Joaquin Chamorro and has reacted by suppressing Chamorro’s most effective weapon. The actual public order threat posed by the guerrillas seems to have been met not only with greater purely military activity, but if recent reports coming our way are to be believed, also with greater repression and brutality by the National Guard—especially by the Office of National Security. By these responses the GON has communicated its own uneasiness to a citizenry, many of whom already [Page 687] were well disposed to accept the events as heralds of a new political age.
11. The events have coincided with reports from nearly every Embassy contact that corruption in government has taken a new lease on life in the past six months and is currently affecting all levels of government. The urban classes have reacted to this spectacle not only with disgust and chagrin, but with the gloomy perception that this may signal the decadence of the regime and its last efforts to extract wealth through their privileged position. Although individual businessmen are deeply concerned by these portents, organized private sector sentiment has been muffled by timely GON concessions on energy rates and appointments to key government posts. Similarly the other neutral force, the Church, has been silent and complacent encouraging the suspicion that Somoza has enticed it into an inoffensive posture through promises on Church reconstruction in Managua. Further, in a propaganda response to rural unrest, Somoza has also elected to identify the promising INVIERNO rural welfare program with the sectarian interests of the Liberal Party.
12. Somoza told former Ambassador Shelton in one of their last conversations in early August that he believed his power to be at its apogee. Indeed, with La Prensa silenced, the overt opposition in disarray, the Liberal Nationalist Party purged of nearly all critical elements, and world commodity prices again favoring Nicaragua, he can make a very strong case. Seen through different prisms, however, the same elements, by suggesting the lack of restraints on Somoza’s autocratic tendencies, the polarization of political competition created by the dimunition of the overt opposition and growing socioeconomic expectations contrasted with growing corruption, seem to characterize a very brittle strength. Somoza can, of course, reverse his field and instead of sliding gradually towards increased authoritarianism, he could either take steps to liberalize or move quickly and decisively toward establishing a more classic one-party dictatorship. But Somoza typically unwilling to take what he believes are unnecessary and potentially hazardous risks or commit himself to the exertions required by these ends, seems unlikely to do either. His political course, if plotted since his assumption of power in 1967, has been to chip away gradually at the freedoms fostered during the Schick government, backing off when challenged, but always returning to consolidate his power. As such, he may acknowledge the current Sandinista phenomenon and address it by again allowing the open opposition to operate. But those who are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he will eventually permit open political competition grow fewer with each shift. Those who believe that political change can only come about through more dramatic means, on the other hand, seem to be growing. Thus, [Page 688] whether the short-term expectations toward the FSLN are commercial or not, the appeal of their methods guarantees it unwholesome viability in the newly emerging political dynamic.
Summary: The Embassy reported that support for the FSLN seemed to be growing, largely because the overt opposition to Somoza was weak and divided.
Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D750346–1126. Secret. All brackets are in the original except those indicating text that remains classified or was garbled in the original. Telegram 2325 from Managua is dated June 16. (Ibid., D750210–1066)↩