Air University Review, July-August 1986

From FOCO to Insurrection:
Sandinista Strategies of Revolution

David Nolan

In 1895, Frederick Engels announced that "the rebellion of the old style, the street fighting behind barricades, which up to 1848 gave the final decision, has become antiquated."1 Improvements in the mobility and firepower of government forces, combined with the lure of parliamentary representation for the workers, had ended the era in which revolutionaries could hope to seize power through urban insurrection. In the twentieth century, those seeking power for the purpose of radically transforming society have generally turned to rural-based guerrilla warfare as a means of overthrowing the existing order. The theories of Mao, Giap, and Guevara proposed the initiation of internal war in the countryside not only for military reasons but also because of an identification of the cities as ideologically impure bastions of counterrevolution.

The image of the guerrilla as the necessary centerpiece of revolutionary war was passed on to the young Nicaraguan followers of Marxism-Leninism who founded the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) in 1961.2 Burdened with this inheritance, the Sandinistas labored for two decades to produce a strategic doctrine capable of winning state power through military action. The search led them to model their strategy first on the Cuban experience and later on the Vietnamese. In the end, however, the dynastic dictatorship of the Somozas was brought down in July 1979 by a new synthesis of mobile partisan operations with urban insurrectionist and general-strike patterns of the sort that Engels had declared dead a century before. Although the ultimate reasons for the downfall of Anastasio Somoza and the Nicaraguan National Guard lie in the dynamics of popular revolution from below, it was the insurrectional strategy of Humberto Ortega, Nicaragua's present defense minister, and the Tercerista (Third) faction of the FSLN that enabled a self-styled vanguard elite to harness the power of the revolt for their own ends.3

The Sandinista Foco

When Carlos Fonseca and Tomás Borge, former law students from the University of Nicaragua, decided in the late 1950s to quit the Moscow-line Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN) and follow the path of armed revolt, they turned to the recent Cuban experiences of Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Ché" Guevara for a theoretical framework. The first FSLN foco (guerrilla operations zone) on the Río Coco in 1963 was predicated on Ché's three lessons of the Cuban Revolution:

The emphasis of the foco theory, reinforced by Regis Debray's 1967 elaboration, was on the independence of the rural military arm from (and predominance over) the Leninist party. In its extreme form, foquismo saw the guerrillas as a secret military force almost totally "independent of the civilian population."5 Tactically, Guevara counseled the use of mobility, surprise, and covering terrain to make up for the foco's lack of arms and numbers. Ambush was the preferred means of making contact with the enemy. The primary operational objectives were to disrupt the regime's communications and transport networks and to capture supplies. The strategic objective was survival––"no battle, combat or skirmish is to be fought unless it will be won."6

Ironically, one of the pioneers of the basic tactical principles of twentieth-century guerrilla warfare was Augusto César Sandino, the Nicaraguan leader in the 1927-33 fight against U.S. intervention, whose memory the FSLN honored. Sandino's guerrilla movement was part of the great transition in irregular warfare that occurred when the machine gun and the airplane ended the viability of the mounted raiders long familiar on the steppes of Central Asia, the Middle East, and North America. While Mao was developing the people's war concept in China, Sandino was successfully combating U.S. Marines through the use of jungle cover and ambushes by small numbers of foot-mobile guerrillas armed with submachine guns and backed by a peasant support network.7 The Sandinistas were influenced by the Sandino experience both directly and through Guevara.

As it turned out, the FSLN's 1963 campaign was a classic case study in the failings of the foco theory. In June 1963, approximately sixty minimally trained students-turned-guerrillas, led by Sandino's old comrade Colonel Santos Lopez and the thirty-three-year-old Tomás Borge, crossed the Rio Coco from Honduras to occupy the village of Raití. No effort had been made to establish a secure supply line or to familiarize the militants with the mountainous jungle of the border region. The few attempts made to politicize the local Miskito Indian farmers and fishermen failed in the face of communications barriers and the general lack of peasant discontent. In October, after a few unsuccessful attacks on local National Guard detachments, the survivors retreated to Honduras, where most were arrested. Clearly, more than guerrilla voluntarism was needed to overthrow the Somozas.


Selytizing among students, the urban poor, and the peasantry of the Department of Matagalpa in the central mountains.(see map) In January 1965, Carlos Fonseca was deported to Guatemala, where he met Luís Turcios Lima of the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), a Castroist offshoot of the Guatemalan Communist Party. At the time, Turcios Lima was attempting to overcome his own bad experiences with foquismo through the application of the concept of protracted people's war advocated by Asian guerrilla theorists Mao Zedong and Vo Nguyen Giap.8 During the next year, an FSLN contingent under Oscar Turcios went to fight with the Rebel Armed Forces on the Zacapa Front. Armed with this practical experience, the beginnings of a new theory, three years of preparatory work in rural Matagalpa, and the ideological inspiration of the January 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana, the FSLN returned to the mountains.


The Pancasán guerrilla movement (named after a local mountain) marked a transition from Cuban foquismo to Asian people's war in Nicaragua. Casimiro Sotelo, the FSLN representative in Cuba, described the Sandinista effort in foquista terms as a mobile guerrilla insurgency using exemplary armed action to garner peasant support and provoke U.S. military intervention as a part of Guevara's "one, two, many Vietnams" strategy.9 Back in Nicaragua, however, the three Sandinista columns under Fonseca, Borge, and Silvio Mayorga were more interested in organizing a viable peasant support network than in provoking firefights with the National Guard. Nevertheless, in May 1967, after five months of silent work, the foco's existence was discovered. Peasant informers and the Guard's helicopter mobility led to the destruction of the Mayorga column in August. The loss of one-third of the organization's strength sent the survivors fleeing first to the cities and then into Cuban or Costa Rican exile when the urban underground collapsed in November.

The Prolonged Popular War

In the aftermath of Pancasán, the FSLN was subjected to a major organizational and ideological overhaul. Fonseca was made secretary-general, but actual power was decentralized among the seven members of the National Directorate. Although the collective leadership system encouraged factionalism during the mid-1970s, it also enabled the organization to survive a decade of repression that claimed the lives of eight of the fourteen directors who served during the period. A definitive break with foco theory was achieved with the adoption of "Prolonged Popular War" (Guerra Popular Prolongada––GPP) as the FSLN's strategic doctrine. Loosely based on a reading of the revolutions in Vietnam and China, the GPP line called for a period of "accumulation of forces in silence."10 While the urban organization recruited on the university campuses and collected funds through bank holdups, the main cadres were to go permanently to the north central mountain zone. There they would build a grassroots peasant support base in preparation for renewed rural guerrilla warfare.11 Flirtations with urban terrorism along the lines of the Uruguayan Tupamaros were abandoned after the killings of commando leaders Julio Buitrago in July 1969 and Leonel Rugama in January 1970. In addition to the military problems of weak security and insufficient room to maneuver, the GPP theorists took a pessimistic view of the prospects of building a popular base for the revolution in the urban stronghold of the bourgeois mentality. With no chance of a popular uprising, urban revolutionaries could never hope to move beyond terrorism to challenge state power seriously.

The GPP departed from foquismo by insisting that the "masses" be mobilized and indoctrinated through the seizure of power rather than afterward. Militarily, this meant that the peasants would be incorporated into the guerrilla forces. Following Mao, the Sandinistas identified (U.S.) imperialism, not the Somoza regime, as the immediate enemy and prepared to fight a protracted war to wear down, over a matter of decades, any nonsocialist regime, dictatorial or democratic, that should come to power.12 Operationally, the GPP resurrected the Asian people's war concepts of armed propaganda carried out by small squads dispersed over a wide area and the construction of liberated zones, both of which had been rejected by the foco theorists.13 In addition to the strategic concerns, the GPP had a strong ideological and spiritual attraction for the FSLN's middle-class student membership. The mountains were seen as the "crucible" where a petty bourgeois could be freed from his "vain desires" and forged into a cadre of the proletarian revolution.14 Ideological dogma permeated the GPP, making the movement less a military strategy and more of a faith unable to adapt to a changing political environment.

In accordance with the new approach, FSLN cadres began returning to the mountains in 1969. In February 1970, an FSLN-led force of peasants got into a firefight with the National Guard near Zinica and escaped––a considerable accomplishment, considering past Sandinista experience. The next five years were the "period of silence" in which the rural cadres under Moscow-trained Henry Ruíz (Comandante Modesto )avoided contact with the Guard and tried to build a peasant support network. The urban organization worked through intermediate groups, such as the Revolutionary Student Front (FER) and the Christian Revolutionary Movement (MCR), to free Sandinista prisoners, propagandize in the barrios, and gather supplies for the guerrillas. The silence was broken on 27 December 1974 when the Managua home of a prominent Somoza supporter was seized during a Christmas party. Although President Anastasio Somoza gave in to the Sandinistas' demands, he retaliated by declaring martial law and unleashing a reign of terror in the mountains where the guerrillas had begun to assassinate local officials. For a while, the guerrillas were able to fight back, but the Guard's campaign of executions and resettlement undermined the GPP's limited peasant base. The main guerrilla force, Henry Ruíz's Pablo Ubeda column, was cut off from its urban supporters and forced to retreat into the sparsely populated jungles of eastern Nicaragua. Four major commanders, including Carlos Fonseca, were killed; and Tomás Borge was captured. By 1977, the GPP guerrilla movement was no longer a credible threat to the Somoza regime.15

The Proletarian Digression

During the mid-1970s, a group within the FSLN's urban mobilization arm began to question the viability of the GPP. In the view of the young orthodox Marxist intellectuals, such as Jaime Wheelock, economic development had turned Nicaragua into a nation of factory workers and wage-earning farm laborers.16 Writing off the peasantry as a thing of the past, the Proletarian Tendency (TP) proposed to build a Leninist working-class party and to organize unions in the cities and commercial farms. In theory, the TP subscribed to the FSLN's traditional commitment to violence. The rural guerrilla strategy was rejected in favor of self-defense and urban commando actions by armed union members. This military strategy was rather similar to the Trotskyist idea of armed unions preparing for a general strike and an immediate transition to socialism. In practice, however, TP leaders believed that the struggle would be so prolonged that they virtually abandoned military action altogether.

Because Wheelock and the TP had forsaken violence and the mountains, traditional foundation principles of the FSLN, they were purged by the GPP-dominated National Directorate in October 1975. While the TP did succeed in organizing some urban cells, its ranks remained small and were of little military consequence.

The Insurrectional Strategy

Circa 1975, Humberto Ortega, a junior member of the FSLN's National Directorate living in exile, came to the same conclusion that the prolonged popular war idea was not going to work. During the GPP-TP debate about armed rural struggle versus urban mass organizing, Ortega attempted to integrate both approaches into a new strategic concept of insurrectionalism. Where both Wheelock's Proleatarios and the GPP under Borge and Ruíz felt that the low level of revolutionary consciousness among the people and the threat of U.S. intervention dictated a cautious long-term approach, Ortega and the Terceristas (as the Insurrectional Tendency was popularly known) argued that the time for decisive action was fast approaching. Ortega declared that the Somoza dictatorship had polarized Nicaraguan society to such an extent that the Sandinistas needed to be prepared militarily to lead a popular insurrection.17 If the Sandinistas failed to guide the coming people's revolt, it could mean the end of their ideological vision.

The Terceristas' sense of urgency came from their view that cultural and economic imperialism was co-opting potentially revolutionary masses into the world capitalist system and undermining the growth of proletarian consciousness. If the revolution waited for Marx's working class to lead it, it would never happen.18 The Terceristas followed Ché's principle: "It is not necessary to wait until all the conditions for making revolution exist; the insurrection can create them."19 By remaining outside the systemic conflict between dictatorship and reformism, the FSLN could use voluntaristic action to create new subjective conditions to compensate for the decline in the objective conditions for revolution. There were two crucial differences, however, between the foquismo of Guevara and Tercerista insurrectionalism. First, Ortega was not about to start believing that voluntarism could substitute for popular support, as Ché had in Bolivia. The vanguard needed an opening to exploit before engaging in direct action. Second, there was no mechanistic commitment to a particular means of fighting. Since the war in the mountains had ceased to be of any real significance, a bold new strategy was needed.

During 1977, Humberto Ortega perceived the beginnings of a democratic opening that was both a threat and an opportunity for the Sandinistas. The rampant corruption of the Somoza regime (especially following the 1972 earthquake) and the repression campaign against the peasantry had led to a decay in the regime's support base. The government was weakened in its ability to resist demands for democratization from local businessmen, church leaders, and international opinion. Ortega realized that the U.S. government could easily abandon Somoza for a reformist regime led by the popular newspaper editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro.20 The general perception of the FSLN as a spent force after the repression of the GPP in 1975-77 seemed to remove the last objection to liberalization. Had the guerrillas delayed, Ortega said,

we would have lost our chance to the enemy, and he would have been able to defeat us once and for all ... because the people would have been confused by the regime's granting of a few concessions and it would have been harder for them to understand our views.21

The feared concessions that were being advocated by reformers in Managua and Washington consisted of free elections and social reform that would cut short the revolutionary process. If Somoza were to be pushed out and replaced by a Costa Rican-style social democracy, the Sandinistas would have become irrelevant. The opportunity for socialist revolution would have been lost.

Given the lack of a usable proletariat and the shortcomings of the peasantry demonstrated by the GPP experience, the Terceristas searched for a new group on which to base the insurrection. This search led them back to the cities where a "third social force" of alienated middle-class people, small self-employed entrepreneurs, students, unemployed youth, and inhabitants of the shantytowns would form the popular basis for the war against the dictatorship. Since both the alienated population and the state apparatus were urbanized, the seizure of power had to be so also. The trouble was that many of these groups had not shown much interest in supporting the Sandinistas in the past. The solution was to build a broad-front alliance with the bourgeois-democratic opposition. In Ortega's view, without that alliance, there would have been no insurrection and no victory.22 The presence of the business community and the Church in the broad opposition front also served as a means of mobilizing international liberal support and shielding the revolution from the threat of U.S. intervention.

The other factions of the FSLN attacked the alliance strategy as a dangerous concession to the non-Marxist forces. The Proletarios maintained that bourgeois participation would lead to a reformist democracy.23 The GPP branded the Tercerista military strategy as "petty bourgeois adventurism" aimed at nothing more than "a simple change in national capitalist personalities within the government machinery."24 The Terceristas' emphasis on military action over political work contradicted the post-Guevara mass mobilization doctrines of both the Proletarios and the people's war advocates.

The Terceristas defended the alliance as "tactical and temporary."25 At no time did they admit to having made any sort of binding agreement on the nature of revolutionary Nicaragua. The FSLN's radical program and rhetoric were toned down to attract all who opposed Somoza, but military command remained with the Marxist-Leninist leadership. The Terceristas did not plan on ending up like Salvador Allende in Chile, who had tried to carry out a socialist revolution without first securing military hegemony. As for the accusations of adventurism, the Terceristas ignored the dissenters. They chose to "respond to a concrete situation with armed revolutionary action and did not limit [themselves] to analysis." 26

Operationally, Humberto Ortega replaced the GPP's defensive posture with the doctrine of "active accumulation of forces." Rather than building organizations, recruiting, and collecting weapons from the sidelines, Ortega proposed to build up the FSLN's strength through action. By attacking the Guard directly, the FSLN-Insurrectional would demonstrate the weakness of the regime and encourage others to take up arms. Successful ambushes of Guard patrols would result in a net gain in equipment and ammunition. Such operations would hasten the process of turning recruits into veterans capable of standing up to the Guard in conventional combat. Occupations of towns and cities offered opportunities for recruiting drives and insurrectional agitation. Finally, the perceived growth of the FSLN would itself undermine the regime and shift the balance of forces to a degree that a simple buildup of men and equipment could never accomplish.

In May 1977, the Tercerista faction of the National Directorate issued its internal Political-Military Platform in which it spelled out its plan to conceal the group's postwar objectives in order to create a broad anti-Somoza front and mobilize an armed insurrection backed by a militarily effective Sandinista Army.27 The group then proceeded to gather men and material for a general offensive. The idea was to seize some National Guard posts, pass out arms to the people, and at least win the propaganda victory of establishing the Sandinistas as a viable military contender. Meanwhile, a group of prominent Nicaraguan professionals, business leaders, and clergymen allied to the Terceristas, known as the "Twelve," would organize a provisional government from Costa Rica. When later asked about the plan's vagueness, Ortega replied, "Well, since we had never experienced an insurrection, we felt that was the way to mobilize the masses."28

Somoza's heart attack in July 1977, the lifting of martial law in September, and movements toward a dialogue between the regime and the democratic opposition indicated to the Terceristas that the crucial moment had arrived. In October, Tercerista squads attacked the Guard in the north around Ocotal and at San Carlos on Lake Nicaragua. In the central City of Masaya, however, a twelve-man Tercerista assault on the seventy-man garrison was repulsed with 50 percent losses. Although militarily insignificant, the October offensive succeeded in reestablishing the FSLN in the Nicaraguan consciousness as the armed alternative to Somoza.

The Emergence of
the Urban Insurrection

On 10 January 1978, the tense political situation exploded when someone assassinated Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the popular editor of the opposition newspaper La Prensa and leader of a reformist political movement. Spontaneous riots followed in several cities, while the business community organized a general strike demanding Somoza's resignation. The Terceristas joined the turmoil in early February with attacks in Granada, Rivas, Corinto, and Santa Clara. In each case, the Sandinistas inflicted a few casualties and successfully withdrew. Then, on 21 February, suddenly the urban insurrection that Ortega had been talking about became a reality when Monimbó (the Indian district of Masaya) rose in revolt. Armed with hunting rifles, shotguns, pistols, and homemade explosives, the local population held out behind makeshift barricade lines for a week before being overrun by the Guard. Although the FSLN tried to infiltrate guerrillas into the city after the insurrection began, the Monimbó revolt was an indigenously organized response to Guard attacks on earlier demonstrations.

In Ortega's view, the Monimbó incident had been a premature revolt lacking vanguard direction (i.e., FSLN control). Its isolation had allowed the Guard to concentrate against it. Of much greater importance, however, was its demonstration effect. After Monimbó, the Terceristas shifted their military strategy away from what had been conceived

more in terms of [the urban population] supporting the guerrillas, so that the guerillas as such could defeat the National Guard. This isn’t what actually happened. What happened was that it was the guerrillas who provided the support for the masses so that they could defeat the enemy by means of insurrection.29

The operational columns were temporarily disbanded so that the cadres could start organizing militias in the cities. Guerrilla activity declined as the focus shifted to unarmed strikes and rioting by labor and student groups coordinated by the FSLN's United People's Movement (MPU).

In August, the Terceristas decided to stage a spectacular hostage-taking in order to preempt a general strike planned by the democratic Broad Opposition Front (FAO) and to head off a possible National Guard coup aimed at installing a civilian-military regime in power that might " put a damper on the revolutionary struggle."30 Twenty-five Tercerista commandos led by Edén Pastora seized the entire Nicaraguan congress. Somoza gave in to their demands for money, release of prisoners (including GPP chief Tomás Borge), and the broadcast of the FSLN's call for general insurrection.

A few days later, armed youths, joined by a few GPP cadres, took over the highland city of Matagalpa. Like Monimbó, the Matagalpa revolt was largely a spontaneous affair of barricades and small arms pitted against the heavily equipped, but poorly motivated National Guard. After almost a week of skirmishing and aerial bombardment, a final assault by armor-backed units of the Basic Infantry Training School (EEBI) finally dispersed the 400 lightly armed teenagers that constituted the resistance. At first, the ill-prepared Terceristas hesitated until Ortega decided that the FSLN had to take the lead to establish its hold on the insurrection. The plan was to disperse the Guard’s forces by hitting everywhere at once.

On 9 September, 150 Tercerista cadres attacked Guard posts in Managua, Masaya, León, Chinandega, and Estelí. Large numbers of semiarmed civilians joined the revolt and put the Guard garrisons of the latter four cities under seige. Somoza responded by concentrating his mobile EEBI troops against each city in turn. On 12 September, a cross-border invasion by 150 fighters of the Southern Front under Pastora tried to relieve the pressure but was repulsed. By the twentieth, all four rebel cities had been subdued at the cost of several thousand, mostly civilian casualties.

The September Insurrection of 1978 demonstrated the soundness of Humberto Ortega's theory of active accumulation of forces. Although, by retaining the initiative, the Guard was able to defeat the urban militias piecemeal, the Sandinistas made gains that would have a major impact on the eventual outcome of the war. The FSLN emerged from the September battles with substantial increases in combat experience, urban mobilization skills, recruits, and captured equipment. Furthermore, the arbitrary postrebellion massacres of urban youths by the Guard brought the level of state repression to the point of counterproductivity. Where once the death of a Sandinista sympathizer might have frightened others into submission, the revolutionary climate in Nicaragua had matured to the point that one boy's death was likely to convince his friends and relatives that they had no alternative to joining the armed opposition. On the international front, the outbreak of full-scale civil war in the cities convinced most observers that the Somoza regime was politically, if not yet militarily, finished.

While the United States tried unsuccessfully to mediate a compromise solution, the Sandinistas prepared for an all-out final offensive based on the proven willingness of the Nicaraguan people to take up arms against the regime. In November 1978, the Terceristas resumed rural combat operations in the northern highlands and along the Costa Rican border. In a letter to Northern Front Commander Francisco Rivera, Humberto Ortega outlined a partisan war strategy designed to keep pressure on the regime while the urban resistance was being reorganized. The Northern Front's mission was to wear down and disperse the government’s forces with small-scale attacks and ambushes. The main tactical objective of these operations, in keeping with the active accumulation of forces doctrine, was to obtain weapons and ammunition while providing recruits training under fire. Ortega directed the Northern Front to operate in the Ocotal Valley and the Estelí Plateau, where protective topography and dense population allowed the formation of large columns. The guerillas’ usefulness lay in their ability to support uprisings in the population centers. Ortega distinguished this partisan style of rural war from the self-contained people's war attempts to organize liberated zones among isolated peasants. The GPP cadres were wasting their time "far from Nicaragua's present political and military problems," Ortega wrote, because off in the mountains they could "only combat the mosquitoes and the hardships there."32

Between March and May 1979, Francisco Rivera and German Pomares roamed the north with columns several hundred strong, briefly occupying El Jicaro, Estelí, and Jinotega in an effort to draw the Guard away from the central urban centers. However, a similar attempt to divert some of the 3000 Guardsmen away from the Costa Rican border failed when a 140-person column was wiped out in the Nueva Guinea region of southeast Nicaragua. By themselves, the rural columns were inadequate to win the war, but they made a valuable contribution to the coming decisive campaign by increasing the FSLN's fighting strength and keeping the Guard from concentrating on other threats.

The Final Offensive

In May-July 1979, the Sandinistas finally succeeded in deploying all of their resources to bring about a military decision. First, the FAO and the MPU launched an open-ended general strike to weaken the regime’s economic base. Second, the FSLN led popular uprisings in the six largest cities, where the militias besieged the local garrisons, disrupted the Guard's supply system, and impeded the movement of government reserve forces by blocking the main transportation routes. Third, partisan operations by the Northern and Western fronts inhibited the Guard's freedom of movement and consolidated Sandinista control over the northern countryside. Finally, the conventional military forces of the FSLN's Southern Front brought the regime's elite EEBI troops to battle on the Costa Rican frontier, preventing them from acting as a mobile strike force.

Each element of the Final Offensive had occurred before but had failed to bring about the defeat of the government's forces. The missing element of coordination was provided in March 1979 with the reunification of the FSLN and the establishment of Radio Sandino in Costa Rica. Under Cuban pressure, the Prolonged Popular War and Proletarian tendencies finally agreed to unite with the Terceristas behind the insurrectional strategy, thus ending the infighting that had divided the FSLN's resources since 1975. Humberto Ortega continued in his role as de facto commander in chief of the Sandinista Army. Radio broadcasts allowed Ortega's headquarters in Costa Rica to mount nationwide operations and respond to developments instead of planning a campaign destined to fail as the initiatives passed to the Guard.

The major remaining problem was the lack of firepower. By late spring, the Southern Front began to overcome this weakness with the arrival of light artillery to supplement its stocks of assault rifles. Supplies from Venezuela and increasingly from Cuba were funneled through Panama into the Costa Rican base area.33 Costa Rican tolerance of the FSLN presence was due mainly to the moderate image that the Terceristas had cultivated through their alliance with the democratic opposition and armed social democrats such as Pastora.

The strategic goal of the Final Offensive was the division of the enemy's forces. Urban insurrection was the crucial element because the FSLN could never hope to achieve simple superiority in men and firepower over the National Guard. As Ortega described it,

the mass movement did not allow the enemy to concentrate all its military force against the columns, and at the same time the columns’ operations forced the enemy to go out in search of them. This, in turn, made the mass struggle in the cities a little easier.34

The mobilized population was a military asset that could disperse the 14,000 National Guardsmen and restrict their mobility to the point where the Sandinista Army could meet them on equal terms. The Guard would be unable to concentrate on one threat without letting the others get out of hand.

The campaign opened on 29 May when Edén Pastora and 350 fighters of the Southern Front crossed the Costa Rican border at El Naranjo. After eleven days of fighting, the rebels withdrew to reorganize. On 15 June, Pastora resumed the offensive, provoking a bloody positional war along the Panamerican Highway. His 1500 well-armed combatants were never able to break through but succeeded in tying down more than 2000 of the regime's best troops. Meanwhile, on 3 June, the northwestern city of León, backed by 180 cadres of the Western Front under Dora María Téllez and Leticia Herrera, led the wave of urban uprisings that soon included Matagalpa, Masaya, Diriamba, and Estelí. Although heavy street fighting continued in most cities for several weeks, by mid-June many of the Guard units had been reduced to static defense of their barracks.

The war came to the capital on 9 June, when the Internal Front of Managua under Carlos Nuñez and Joaquin Cuadra organized a civilian insurrection in the poor districts that surrounded the sprawling city.35 For Somoza, the pacification of Managua took top priority because of the rebels' control of the road to the airport and the accessibility of the area to foreign journalists. For eighteen days, 1200 militia members, backed by 300 FSLN regulars, withstood aerial bombardment and sporadic Guard ground attacks until a lack of ammunition forced the Internal Front to evacuate the city and retreat to Masaya on 27 June. For a short while after the clearing of Managua, Somoza held the initiative, but having already secretly agreed in principle to U.S. demands for his resignation, he failed to exploit his temporary advantage.

Meanwhile, 300 veterans of the Internal Front, reorganized as the Mobile Battalion, scored a major victory by seizing control of the central Department of Carazo and routing Guard garrisons in Jinotepe, San Marcos, and Masatepe. By 6 July, the Mobile Battalion had cut road communications between Managua and the Guard forces fighting the Southern Front. The next day, the last Guard stronghold in Leon fell, and preparations began there to set up a provisional revolutionary government. The Guard made a halfhearted attempt on 10 July to retake the road junction at Sebaco––the necessary first step to any move to relieve the beleaguered garrisons of Estelí and Matagalpa––but was repulsed. The last Guard position in Estelí fell on 16 July, and the Guard fort outside Matagalpa was evaluated the following day. On the seventeenth, the Mobile Battalion began its attack on Granada. Only Managua, the northern hill town of Jinotega, and the southern city of Rivas remained in Somocista hands.

After 10 July, the only questions remaining were whether the Sandinistas would have to mount an assault on Managua and whether the Guard, particularly the elite troops facing the Southern Front, would maintain air institutional existence. However, when Somoza finally quit Nicaragua on 17 July, his army disintegrated on its own. On the following day, Guardsmen dropped their weapons, discarded their uniforms, and abandoned their remaining strongholds. Even the EEBI troops rushed in mass to flee the country via the port of San Juan del Sur. On 19 July, Sandinista units entered Managua unopposed.

Lessons from the
Nicaraguan Revolutionary War

The fundamental military objective of an insurgent force is to destroy the ruling regime. In a revolutionary situation, the relationship between war and politics often goes beyond the Clausewitzian concept of war as an extension of politics to the point that the military and the political are nearly indistinguishable. Nevertheless, the final overthrow of the Nicaraguan government in the summer of 1979 was essentially a military accomplishment made possible by the FSLN's insurrectional political military strategy. The Sandinistas opted for the armed road to power in the early 1960s because armed seizure of the state offered the prospect of absolute political power of the sort necessary to the accomplishment of their radical ideological objectives. It was not until 1978, however, that a significant number of Nicaraguans came to concur with the FSLN's call for revolt, if not its ultimate ideological objectives. Once popular support was forthcoming, the FSLN was able to organize and lead an uprising from below that defeated the state's security apparatus in open battle. Only after rebel forces had won control of most of the country and immobilized the Guard did political and diplomatic efforts to remove Somoza succeed.

The problem in achieving revolution through force of arms is how to acquire the means to challenge the regime. The debate on this point within Latin American leftist circles has revolved around whether the focus should be on the countryside or the cities and whether the first priority should be to organize the masses or to build up the military strength of the vanguard. For decades, the traditional Communist Party strategy for revolution had been to infiltrate urban trade unions and wait for an opportunity to expand one's influence over the state as the leftists did in Chile as part of Allende's 1970-73 Popular Unity coalition. In Chile, however, the left failed to reestablish the military dominance necessary to keep power. In the FSLN experience, the tactics of the Proletarian Tendency represented a return to traditional nonmilitary organizing in the cities, with the added disadvantage that, unlike the Communists, the TP was hostile toward alliances with democratic groups.

The foco theory rejected the Communists' urban popular front strategy in favor of building a military vanguard in isolated rural areas to demonstrate quickly, through moral as much as military force, the incapacity of the regime's forces. To the extent that the foco theory had any validity at all, it was in a situation such as the Cuba of 1958, where a corrupt government's political collapse created a temporary vacuum in which a small armed band could pick up power rather than having to seize it. When the foco alternative was tried against stronger regimes during the 1960s in Venezuela, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, it invariably resulted in military disaster. In the late 1960s and 1970s, urban terrorist organizations (such as the Uruguayan Tupamaros and the Argentine Montoneros) tried to transfer the militarist voluntarism of foquismo to the urban environment, with similarly unfortunate consequences for the isolated cadres. The Sandinistas made successful use of urban commando tactics––as in the 1974 Christmas Party kidnapping and the 1978 Palace Raid––but never made the mistake of looking on terrorism as a strategy for victory.

The people's war doctrine shifted emphasis to a mobilization of the rural population, the transformation of peasants into a guerrilla army, and the slow strangulation of the regime's urban base. During the 1970s, people's war became established as a viable strategy for guerrilla survival (though not necessarily as a means of seizing power) in Guatemala by the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and in El Salvador by Salvador Cayetano Carpio's Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL). In Nicaragua, however, the Prolonged Popular War faction of the FSLN was never able to build enough of a peasant social base to emerge as a serious threat.

The insurrectional strategy combined foquista direct military action and the people's war's conception of the masses as a military asset with traditional Communism's readiness to seek tactical alliances and identification of the city as the key to winning power. In a military sense, the triumph of the Nicaraguan Revolution was based on the following four principles.

First, Humberto Ortega and the Tercerista faction of the FSLN developed a war-winning strategy through what revolutionaries call the unification of theory and practice––gaining knowledge through action. The Sandinistas see themselves as agents ordained by history to construct a collectivist society and create a "New Nicaraguan Man." This determinist mentality easily leads, as it did during the era of GPP dominance, to dogmatic approaches to problem-solving. The unity of theory and practice provides a way for revolutionaries to exercise what might seem to be pragmatic flexibility while preserving their ideological vision. It allows them to maintain contact with reality and to learn from their mistakes without weakening their faith in the cause. The insurrectional strategy rejected the dogmas on the dangers of popular alliances and the need to concentrate on the countryside, without compromising the long-term goal of authoritarian social transformation. The Terceristas were thus able to react to Nicaragua's political dynamics and mold their tactics to the situation.

Second, the Terceristas were able to mobilize broad popular support and translate it into a military asset. They understood the truth of the Maoist dictum

Because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation.36

The Terceristas were able to tap real sources of alienation in Nicaraguan society and offer a role in the broad-front alliance for the many Nicaraguans who had no use for the FSLN's Marxist-Leninist ideology. By catering to popular aspirations, the Terceristas achieved the mass participation that tipped the military balance. They had to focus on the cities because that was where Nicaragua's alienated population was. In the isolation of the countryside, almost any guerrilla force can survive by substituting terror for popular appeal. But an urban insurrection that turns the masses into a military force is impossible without exploitable conditions of unrest. Extensive popular support based on a false democratic program, however, can present an obstacle to the realization of narrow ideological goals. The Sandinistas solved the problem through a postwar monopoly on military and police power that allowed them to carry out their version of the revolution "independent of the support of those who participated in the movement that opposed the established order."37

Third, the Terceristas used the dynamic of the war itself as a source of military power. What Ortega described as the active accumulation of forces was the application of the principle of the unity of theory and practice to the problems of mobilization and logistics. FSLN actions provoked government repression, which, in turn, generated support and recruits for the FSLN. With aggressive small-scale attacks on the Guard, the guerrillas captured ammunition and provided training for new recruits. Strategic offensives gave the FSLN high-command experience in planning and in coordinating execution.

Fourth, during the Final Offensive, the FSLN overcame its conventional military inferiority by dividing the enemy's forces through combined operations. Urban militias, rural partisans, and cross-border incursions mutually supported one another by forcing the Guard to deal with numerous threats simultaneously. Without the ability to concentrate his forces, Somoza could not retain control of the country.

As often happens with successful revolutionary enterprises, the Sandinista victory was hailed as a new model for the seizure of power. For a short time, insurrectionalism stood on the pedestal previously occupied in Latin America by the foquismo of Ché, the people's war of Mao, and the electoral road of Allende. Foquismo died in 1967 with Guevara in the Bolivian jungle. The electoral road to socialism hit a dead end in the Santiago football stadium in 1973. Insurrectionalism as a panacea was shattered by the mass apathy displayed by the people of El Salvador in response to appeals by the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) to join their "final offensive" in January 1981 and by the large turnouts for the series of Salvadoran elections beginning in March 1982. Dissatisfied as they may have been with the status quo, most Salvadorans were not prepared to take up arms to support the FMLN alternative.

As for the Prolonged Popular War, it continues today in the northern borderlands of El Salvador, in the Indian highlands of Guatemala, and ironically in the mountains and jungles of northern and eastern Nicaragua, where the contra armies of the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces (FDN), the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE), and Miskito Indian groups have been able to mobilize far greater numbers of peasants against Sandinista rule than the GPP was ever able to rouse against Somoza.

Rural insurgency is most likely to plague the region for years to come. Even so, today's Central American guerrillas still face the old dilemma of the GPP––the mountains may offer survival and mystique, but the objective of the insurgency is in the city. In order to win control of the state, the guerrillas must eventually convince a significant part of the urban population that the uncertainties of revolution are preferable to the trials of the status quo. As long as a government can hold the passive support of the cities and keep the rebels on the run in the hills, it need not fear military defeat. However, as long as the guerrillas continue to exist, they offer a potential catalyst that can turn an emerging wave of urban discontent into a successful revolution.

Gaborone, Botswana


1. Frederick Engels, "Introduction to the 1895 Edition," in Karl Marx, The Class Struggle in France, 1848-1850 (New York: New York Labor News Company, 1924), pp. 19-23. 2. For additional information on the guerrilla mystique in America, see J. Bowyer Bell, The Myth of the Guerrilla: Revolutionary Theory and Malpractice (New York: Knopf, 1971).

3. For background on the Nicaraguan Revolution in English, see George Black, The Triumph of the People: The Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua (London: Zed, 1982); John Booth, The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1982); Shirley Christian, Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family (New York; Random House, 1985); Bernard Diederich, Somoza and the Legacy of U.S. Involvement in Central America (New York: Dutton, 1981); David Nolan, The Ideology of the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan Revolution (Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami Press, 1984); and Philip Wheaton and Yvonne Dilling, Nicaragua: A People's Revolution (Washington: EPICA, 1980). See, also, Claribel Alegria and D. J. Flakoll, Nicaragua: La Revolución Sandinista––Una Crónica Politica 1855-1979 (Mexico: Serie Popular Era, 1982) and Pilar Arias, editor, Nicaragua: Revolución––Relatos de Combatientes del Frente Sandinista (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno, 1980).

4. Ernesto "Ché" Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1961), pp. 15, 17.

5. Regis Debray, Revolution in the Revolution? Armed Struggle and Political Struggle in Latin America (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967), p. 41.

6. Guevara, p. 19.

7. Neill Macauley, The Sandino Affair (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967), pp 9-10.

8. See David Crain, "Guatemalan Revolutionaries and Havana's Ideological Offensive of 1966-68," Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs, May 1975, pp. 182-83.

9. Casimiro Sotelo, "In Sandino’s Footsteps" (Interview), Tricontinental, November-December 1967, pp. 121-22.

10. See Henry Ruíz, "La Montaña Era Como un Crisol Donde se Forjaban los Mejores Cuadros" (Interview), Nicaragua, May-June 1980, p. 14; and FSLN-TP, La Crisis Interna y Las Tendencias (Los Angeles: Sandinistas por el Socialismo en Nicaragua, 1978), pp. 12-13.

11. On the development of the GPP faction and its strategy, see "Sandinista Front: People's War in Central America," Tricontinental, May-June 1970, pp. 92-105; Ruíz, "Montaña," pp. 8-25; Tomás Borge, Carlos, the Dawn Is No Longer Beyond Our Reach (Vancouver, Canada: New Star Books, 1984); and Omar Cabezas, Fire from the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista (New York: Crown, 1985).

12. Susanne Jonas, "Nicaragua," NACLA's Latin America and Empire Report, February 1976, p. 33.

13. Debray, pp. 47-56 and 59-63.

14. Ruíz, "Montaña, p. 18.

15. For a view of the mountain war from the Guard perspective, see J.A. Roberto Siles, Yo Deserté de la Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua (San José Costa Rica: EDUCA, 1979).

16. See Jaime Wheelock Roman, Imperialismo y Dictadura (Mexico: Siglo Vientiuno, 1975), for Wheelock’s economic analysis.

17. See Humberto Ortega Saavedra, Cincuenta Años de Lucha Sandinista (Mexico: Editorial Diogenes, 1979), pp. 109-10, 115-16, and 120-21.

18. Orlando Nuñez Soto, "The Third Social Force in National Liberation Movements," Latin American Perspectives, Spring 1981, p. 19.

19. Guevara, p. 15.

20. Humberto Ortega, "Interview with a Sandinista," Newsfront International, October 1978. p. 10, from Liberation (Paris). 25 August 1978.

21. Humberto Ortega, "The Strategy of Victory," in Tomás Borge et al., Sandinistas Speak (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1982). p. 59.

22. Humberto Ortega, Interview in Gramma, 21 August 1979, p. 6, reprinted in Joint Publication Research Service (JPRS) 74293. p. 45.

23. Julio Lopez C. et al., La Caida del Somocismo y la Lucha Sandinista en Nicaragua (San José, Costa Rica: EDUCA, 1979), p. 158.

24. LATIN broadcast (Buenos Aires), 27 October 1977, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS)-LAT-77-209, P2.

25. "Interview with Daniel Ortega "Latin American Perspectives, Winter 1979, p. 117. See, also, Humberto Ortega, "Strategy," p. 79.

26. Ibid., p. 116.

27. National Directorate of the FSLN, On the General Political-Military Platform of Struggle (Oakland, California: Resistance Publications, 1977), pp. 27-30.

28. Humberto Ortega, "Strategy," p. 59.

29. Ibid., p. 58.

30. Ibid., p. 69.

31. Humberto Ortega, Letter to Francisco Rivera (Rubén), 7 January 1979, JPRS 73549, pp. 76-84 , from Novedades, 19 April 1979, pp. 16-17, 28-29.

32. Ibid., p. 79.

33. On the aarms flow to the Southern Front from December 1978 to July 1979, see Christian, pp. 79-80, 89-90, 95.

34. Humberto Ortega, "Strategy," p. 73.

35. On the battle of Managua, see Carlos Nuñez Tellez, Un Pueblo en Armas: Informe del Frente Interno (Managua: Departamento de Propoganda y Educación del FSLN, 1980) and Pablo Emilio Barreto, El Repliegue de Managua a Masaya (Mexico: Editorial Cartago, 1980).

36. Mao Tse-tung, On Guerrilla Warfare (New York: Praeger, 1961), p. 44.

37. Orlando Nuñez, p. 15.


David Nolan (B.A., University of Washington; M.A., University of Miami) is a U.S. Foreign Service officer who serves as consular and refugee officer at the American Embassy in Gaborone, Botswana. Previously he was a U.S. vice-consul in Guayaquil, Ecuador. He visited Nicaragua in January 1982 and is the author of The Ideology of the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan Revolution (1984) and the audiovisual production Nicaragua: The Restless Land (1982).


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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