Central America, 1977–1980

The Carter administration’s preferred policy toward Latin America—stressing human rights and non-interventionism—was severely tested by events in Central America. In July 1979 the revolutionary Sandinista movement prevailed over Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza who had been a close U.S. ally. Facing the possible threat of a Marxist tide sweeping through the region, the Carter White House undertook multiple initiatives to moderate the revolution in Nicaragua.

A statue of Anastasio Somoza is pulled from its base by Sandinista guerrillas on July 10, 1979. (AP Photo)

In a series of speeches in 1977 President Jimmy Carter outlined his vision of a foreign policy based on protecting human rights, pledged to end the tradition of U.S. interventionism in Latin America, and offered to support the development of democracy through multilateral cooperation. Widespread poverty, a growing reform movement, and a corrupt and violent military dictatorship made Nicaragua a clear focus for Carter’s new approach. Somoza controlled Nicaragua’s politics, military, and much of its economy. Following his brother Luis Somoza’s direct and indirect rule of the country from 1956 to 1966, Somoza re-established a military dictatorship in the mold of his father Anastasio Somoza García’s two-decades of control from 1936 to 1956. Public outcry over Somoza’s abuses exploded after a devastating earthquake hit the capital city of Managua in 1972 and Somoza’s businesses, political cronies, and military subordinates embezzled most of the international relief donations.

The geo-politics of the Cold War transformed Carter’s policies toward Nicaragua from what might have been straightforward support for democratic reform to a torturous balancing act. While the middle-class, the business community, and the local Catholic leadership became increasingly critical of Somoza in the mid-1970s, a committed group of revolutionaries had already been fighting for decades to overthrow him. Inspired by the 1959 Cuban revolution and advised by the new Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Nicaraguan revolutionaries joined efforts to found the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The name honored Augusto Sandino, who had fought against the U.S. Marines in the 1920s and opposed the creation of the Nicaraguan National Guard. In fact the Guard, headed by Somoza’s father, executed Sandino despite a surrender agreement in 1934. The Sandinista guerrillas had limited influence, but the growing public opposition to the Somoza regime in the later 1970s presented the opportunity for a breakthrough. Carter criticized Somoza’s abuses but carefully avoided any encouragement of the FSLN because of its Cuban ties and the Marxist orientation of its leaders. The assassination of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the publisher of the opposition newspaper La Prensa, in January 1978 served as a catalyst for civil war. Though Somoza’s role in the crime was unproven, major demonstrations erupted. In August 1978, Sandinista guerrillas captured the National Palace and exchanged several hundred hostages for the release of prisoners, money, and safe passage out of country. The moderate opposition organized a general strike and in September 1978 the Sandinistas launched a series of coordinated attacks in major cities.

Carter sought solutions that would cool the boiling forces of revolution in Nicaragua and establish a path to democratic transition. The 17th Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Organization of American States (OAS) agreed to a U.S. proposal for a political mediation in Nicaragua. Somoza and the moderate opposition accepted the mediation proposal and an International Commission of Friendly Cooperation and Conciliation, comprised of representatives of the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and the United States, arrived in October 1978. William G. Bowdler, the U.S. representative, was ultimately unable to convince Somoza to join with the moderates in a transition to free elections. Carter next opted to explore the possibility of a plebiscite on Somoza’s rule. In January 1979, Somoza rejected the idea of international supervision of a plebiscite vote and the mediation effort ended. That February, Carter terminated military assistance to the National Guard and asked that other countries cease assistance to the Sandinistas.

Events in Nicaragua soon outpaced Carter’s efforts to shape them. The Sandinista leadership joined with selected representatives from the moderate opposition to form a Provisional Government (PG), established in Costa Rica on June 16. On June 21, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance called for the replacement of Somoza with a broadly based transition government of national reconciliation, the negotiation of a cease-fire, humanitarian aid, and an OAS peacekeeping force. Two days later the OAS passed a resolution calling for the replacement of the Somoza regime. In Managua, Ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo pushed for an elaborate plan under which Somoza would resign and the Nicaraguan Congress would elect an interim successor. The successor would appoint a new head of the National Guard, call for a cease-fire, negotiate the gradual merger of the National Guard with FSLN forces, and finally transfer power to the PG within 72 hours. Following the script, Pezzullo informed Somoza on July 12 that his departure would minimize bloodshed and help to salvage the National Guard. Somoza departed for the United States on July 17. The Nicaraguan Congress then elected Francisco Urcuyo. Pezzullo’s plan collapsed when Urcuyo announced his intention to remain in power until the end of Somoza’s presidential term in 1981 and obstructed the cease-fire negotiations. On July 18 Pezzullo departed, the National Guard evaporated, and the PG declared itself the legitimate government of Nicaragua. Sandinista forces entered Managua on July 19 and oversaw the installment of the PG, renamed the Government of National Reconstruction (GNR), the next day.

Still aiming for influence, President Carter met with members of the GNR in the White House in September 1979 and encouraged moderation and respect for democratic values and human rights. That November, Carter asked Congress for $80 million in new supplemental aid funds ($75 million for Nicaragua and $5 million for other Central American states), in addition to the $50 to $70 million of fiscal year 1980 funds that he requested be reprogrammed for Nicaragua. A heated and lengthy congressional debate ended in May 1980 with an act authorizing $80 million in assistance to Central America for fiscal year 1980. The act required reports every six months from the Secretary of State on the status of human rights in Nicaragua and stipulated that the aid would be terminated if foreign forces in Nicaragua threatened the security of the United States or any of its Latin American allies.

The Nicaraguan revolution threatened to worsen an already unstable and violent situation in neighboring El Salvador. Autocratic military governments had prevailed in disputed elections in 1972 and 1977, and by 1979 the President, retired General Carlos Humberto Romero, had increased the repression against the leftist opposition. Convinced that Romero’s rejection of reform strengthened the prospects for revolution and the destruction of their institution, as had transpired in Nicaragua, a group of young military officers overthrew Romero in October 1979. The group established a five-man civilian military junta that was committed to reform and free elections but faced a violent landscape with frequent attacks by both left and right wing terror groups. The United States recognized the new government and provided security assistance and advisers, but the junta collapsed in January 1980 when the civilian members resigned after the junta failed to stem violence by the military and right wing groups. The Christian Democrats, the major reformist political party led by Jose Napoleon Duarte, joined with the military in a new junta government. By March 1980, with Duarte assuming a leadership role, the new junta undertook wide-ranging agrarian and financial reform and received increased U.S. security and economic assistance. Yet, the violence spiked with the murder of the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, who had lamented the abuses of the military and criticized U.S. military aid to El Salvador. In December 1980, the abduction and murder of four U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador convinced President Carter to suspended assistance to the country. A Presidential mission sent by Carter to investigate the crime found complicity of the Salvadoran security forces either in the crime or in evading the investigation. In January 1981 guerrillas of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), named to honor the executed communist leader of the 1932 peasant uprising, launched a major offensive. The United States responded by providing military aid to the junta, citing progress in the investigation of the murders of the churchwomen and concern about external support for the guerrillas.