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A new history of the Sandinista Revolution
17th April 2024 • Trending Globally: Politics and Policy • Trending Globally: Politics & Policy
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In the 1970s in Nicaragua, left-wing rebels, calling themselves the Sandinista National Liberation Front, fought to overthrow their country’s dictator. 

It worked. The Sandinistas led a coalition that took over the government in July 1979, in what became known as the Sandinista Revolution. 

However, within a few years, the Sandinistas faced a violent backlash, which pushed the country into a state of unrest that lasted for almost a decade. 

This period of violence, from roughly 1982-1988, was known as the Contra War. To many Americans, it’s often associated with the Cold War and Ronald Reagan. It’s been described as a proxy battle between the Soviet-supported Sandinistas on one side, and the U.S.-supported counter-revolutionaries, or Contras, on the other. 

But in this episode, we’ll go beyond that Cold War framing of the conflict, to uncover a fuller explanation of why the Sandinista Revolution was successful in Nicaragua in 1979, why it was replaced by a liberal democratic government in 1990, and why that democracy has since fallen apart. 

Mateo Jarquín is a historian and author of The Sandinista Revolution: A Global Latin American History.” Through interviews with former Sandinistas and archival research conducted across Latin America, Mateo tells the story of this momentous decade in Latin American politics from the perspective of those who lived it. In doing so, he challenges our understanding of the Cold War’s impact on Latin America, from the 1980s straight through to the present. 

In the second half of the episode, we’ll talk with Watson Senior Fellow Steven Kinzer about Nicaragua’s repressive political regime today, and a surprising act of resistance whose full effects are yet to be seen. 

Learn about and purchase “The Sandinista Revolution: A Global Latin American History

Listen to episode 1 of “Revolution Revisited” a limited series on the history of the Sandinista Revolution, from Trending Globally

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts


[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. In the Nineteen Seventies, in Nicaragua, left-wing rebels calling themselves the Sandinista National Liberation Front took up arms and fought to overthrow their country's dictator and it worked.

The Sandinistas overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle in Nineteen Seventy-Nine in what became known as the Sandinista Revolution. However, within one year, the Sandinistas were confronted with a violent backlash that pushed the country into a state of unrest that lasted for almost a decade, and the ramifications of which the country is still living with.


This period of violence was known as the Contra War, and to many Americans, it's associated with the Cold War and with Ronald Reagan. It's been described as a, quote, "proxy battle" in the Cold War between the Soviet-supported Sandinistas on one side and the US-supported counter-revolutionaries or Contras on the other.

But as our guest on this episode explains, that story leaves out so much, and it fails to fully answer the questions of why this revolution occurred and why ultimately it failed. And it's not just outsiders who often see this war too simplistically.

MATEO JARQUÍN: For most Nicaraguans the revolution is something that they either fear or they love it's something to condemn or to celebrate. It's a bit of a problem, I believe, that in Nicaragua, we haven't yet gotten past that mode of thinking.

DAN RICHARDS: Mateo Jarquín is a historian and author of The Sandinista Revolution-- A Global Latin American History. Through interviews with former Sandinistas and archival research conducted across Latin America, Mateo tells the story of this momentous decade in Latin American politics, from roughly Nineteen Eighty to Nineteen Ninety from the perspective of those who lived it.

On this episode, the Sandinista Revolution, beyond the Cold War, and what a more nuanced understanding of that period can teach us about Nicaragua, Latin America, and the fragile nature of democracy, both in recent history and in the present.

MATEO JARQUÍN: For many Nicaraguans, the past few years have been like living through a nightmare.

DAN RICHARDS: Later in the episode, we'll hear from the Watson Institute's Stephen Kinzer about one of the more remarkable political developments in Nicaragua in recent months.

STEPHEN KINZER: The dictatorship became so terrified that they not only refused to allow this beauty queen permission to come home, but they went out and arrested the woman who runs the Miss Universe organization in Nicaragua.

DAN RICHARDS: But to start, here's Mateo Jarquín.


Mateo Jarquín, thank you so much for coming back on to Trending Globally.

MATEO JARQUÍN: Thank you, Dan, for having me.

DAN RICHARDS: So what made you, as a historian, want to take a closer look at the history of the Sandinista Revolution?

MATEO JARQUÍN: Well, my family is from Nicaragua, but I spent much of my childhood and most of my life now living in the United States. And here in the US, the Nicaraguan Revolution is this really interesting footnote in the history of American foreign policy and even domestic politics. Many of your listeners will hear the word Sandinista and immediately think of Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal.

Now, by contrast, in Nicaragua, the way people remember the revolution couldn't be more different. For Nicaraguans, the story of the revolution and of the subsequent war between Sandinistas and Contras was a struggle between Nicaraguans.

It wasn't a hotspot in a wider global conflict or a footnote in somebody else's story. For Nicaraguans, it was an epic saga in which they were the protagonists and antagonists. And I've always been fascinated by the gap between those two narratives. So this book is an effort to fill that gap or, better yet, to put those two stories in conversation with one another.

DAN RICHARDS: Before we get into some of the nuances of those different perspectives for looking at Nicaragua's politics in this time, maybe we could cover some of the basics for listeners who maybe aren't as familiar. So to start, who are the Sandinistas? Where did they come from?

MATEO JARQUÍN: Well, the Sandinista National Liberation Front is founded in the early Nineteen Sixties. They take inspiration from both Cuba as well as Augusto César Sandino, an early 20th century nationalist hero. Sandinista leaders were often highly-educated by Nicaraguan standards, most are university students, and they tend to come from what can be described as middle-class backgrounds in the Nicaraguan or Latin American context.

The early Sandinistas remind me a bit of Ernesto Che Guevara, the Argentine medical student that travels across Latin America, winds up converting to communism, and plays a critical role in the Cuban Revolution. These guys are all extremely young when they become professional revolutionaries, and they do so knowing that that's an extremely deadly walk of life.

DAN RICHARDS: As Mateo explained, before the Sandinista Revolution made them a world famous organization, they were considered a fringe group in Nicaragua, and not serious players in the country's politics or a challenge to the country's dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

MATEO JARQUÍN: In the Nineteen Sixties, the Sandinista Front had a really hard time posing a challenge to the Somoza dictatorship, which from the outside looked pretty resilient. The first Somoza was succeeded by his son who then passed on power to their brother.

DAN RICHARDS: The Somoza regime was corrupt and repressive. They also had a friendly relationship with the United States government and with US businesses. And for much of the middle of the 20th century, things were relatively stable in Nicaragua.

MATEO JARQUÍN: Rates of economic growth were actually pretty high. So in the '60s and '70s, nobody had revolution in Nicaragua on their bingo card.

DAN RICHARDS: And yet in Nineteen Seventy-Nine, Somoza fled the country and the Sandinistas took over the government. So what changed? There are, of course, a lot of factors. There was Somoza's inept corrupt handling of a catastrophic earthquake in Nicaragua in Nineteen Seventy-Two.

CREW (VOICEOVER): 90% of the city has been utterly destroyed.

CREW (VOICEOVER): There are Christmas lights on the citrus trees at the ranch of general Anastasio Somoza, the country's strongman, president, dynastic leader, and richest man.

CREW (VOICEOVER): There is not a single building in the downtown section safe for occupancy.

CREW (VOICEOVER): Somoza, whose personal wealth is estimated at $300 million, said he appreciated the international relief Nicaragua had received.

DAN RICHARDS: There was also the assassination in broad daylight of a beloved journalist in Nicaragua from a powerful family, for which the Somoza regime was suspected of being responsible. This event, the assassination of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Cardenal in Nineteen Seventy-Eight, is considered to be the straw that broke the camel's back of the Somoza regime.

However, neither of those events can explain why it was the Sandinistas, a ragtag group of middle-class Marxists, who wound up replacing Somoza. As Mateo described, there were two major factors that allowed them to be the ones to take over Nicaragua. One, the Sandinistas were riding a wave in Latin American politics in the '60s and '70s and they ended up getting a lot of international support.

MATEO JARQUÍN: There was a coalition of Latin American countries, including not only Castro's Cuba but also the likes of Panama, Mexico, and Venezuela that lent crucial backing to the Sandinistas in the form of weapons and also diplomatic cover.

DAN RICHARDS: While they weren't yet famous in the United States, over the course of the Nineteen Seventies, they became something of a cause célébre in Latin America.

MATEO JARQUÍN: In the book I give the example of the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez who played a pivotal role in connecting the Sandinistas with political leaders around Latin America and the Caribbean. Progressives from around the region like Garcia Marquez, they really hope that the Nicaraguans are somehow going to pick up where the Mexican and Cuban revolutions had left off.

DAN RICHARDS: Another factor, despite being in the mold of left-wing revolutionaries like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the Sandinistas welcomed a broad range of ideologies into their movement. They convinced a lot of Nicaraguan society that they could lead a change that would benefit the whole country.

MATEO JARQUÍN: They're able to build a coalition that not only leverages the support of intellectuals and working class movements, but also the approval of the private sector, the church, and even much of the country's traditional aristocracy.

DAN RICHARDS: As a result, after the lightning rod that was the assassination of journalist and editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Cardenal in Nineteen Seventy-Eight, Nicaraguans took to the streets and the Sandinistas were there ready to lead them.

MATEO JARQUÍN: That multi-class Pan ideological coalition is what allows the Sandinistas to become the first and only armed left movement to seize power in Latin America since Fidel Castro Rose to power in Cuba 20 years earlier.

CREW (VOICEOVER): The crowd was the largest in this city's history. They cheered the young guerrillas who fought the 18-month war. This army is a mixture of rich and poor, men and women. Some doubted they could win, overlooked was their determination to get rid of Anastasio Somoza.

DAN RICHARDS: In July of Nineteen Seventy-Nine, Somoza fled the country, and the Sandinistas, with broad support from across the country, took over Nicaragua's Presidential Palace. And the ideological diversity that they had welcomed into their struggle, it was actually reflected in the government that was first established after the revolution.

MATEO JARQUÍN: The revolutionary coalition that rises to power in '79 is extraordinarily diverse, much more diverse than Nicaraguans remember. The business sector endorsed Somoza's overthrow, the Catholic Church endorsed it, virtually every political party signed on. And so when Somoza is ousted, a new revolutionary junta takes power that represents not only the Sandinista front, the left-wing guerrillas in Berets, and olive green fatigues, but their allies as well.


DAN RICHARDS: Wow. OK, so from there, it's Nineteen Seventy-Nine, they staged this revolution. It has broad support, people are feeling really optimistic about the future of the country in many ways. What happens next?

MATEO JARQUÍN: Well, the Sandinistas take power under extraordinarily adverse circumstances. Following the insurrection against Somoza, the country is wrecked. And these people are very young. The average age of the Sandinista commanders on the national directorate, which was the Supreme collective leadership of the revolution, was 33 years old. The chief of staff of the army was something like 24, can you imagine?


MATEO JARQUÍN: I'm 32 and I can barely figure out taxes. So they have this very strong conviction that their mission is to redistribute wealth and dramatically expand access to housing, health care, and education. And I think it's undeniable that in doing so, the revolution promotes the participation of and gives voice to entire segments of the population that had previously been voiceless.

DAN RICHARDS: Some of their early projects like a nationwide literacy program were considered a success. In that case, literacy rates rose, by some estimates, from around 50% to over 80% in Nicaragua. Others like their socialist-inspired land reform programs were less successful. Through their successes and their failures, it became clear.

MATEO JARQUÍN: What little experience they had is in bringing down a government, not in running one. What happened next is what often happens in revolutions across history, which is that the coalition that came together to overthrow the old regime soon collapsed because naturally there was intense disagreement over what the new Nicaragua should look like.

In any event, the mission of reforming and transforming society pretty quickly becomes consumed by the war with the Contras, which really kicks off in Nineteen Eighty-Two.

DAN RICHARDS: The Contras or counter-revolutionaries?

MATEO JARQUÍN: The leadership of which included many exiled remnants of Somoza's National Guard, but the ranks of the Contra army were filled primarily by rural farmers who opposed Sandinista policies, or were otherwise excluded or even persecuted by the revolution.

DAN RICHARDS: The Contras were not well-equipped at first, or as organized as the Sandinistas, but they had one big thing going for them.

RONALD REAGAN: My fellow Americans, I must speak to you tonight about a mounting danger in Central America.

DAN RICHARDS: The Sandinistas came to power during the height of the Cold War, and it undeniably played a big role in the conflict that followed. The United States, and especially the Reagan administration, saw the Sandinistas as an encroachment of communism on America's doorstep.

RONALD REAGAN: For our own security, the United States must deny the Soviet Union a beachhead in North America.

DAN RICHARDS: The United States begins to support the Contras with money, with weapons, with intelligence.

RONALD REAGAN: Will we give the Nicaraguan democratic resistance the means to recapture their betrayed revolution, or will we turn our backs and ignore the malignancy in Managua until it spreads and becomes a mortal threat to the entire new world?

DAN RICHARDS: So Mateo, by about Nineteen Eighty-Three, violence has spread across Nicaragua in what we now call the Contra War. And for many Americans, at least, this is the point where it really becomes more of a story of the Cold War.

On one hand, you have the Sandinistas and Cuba and the USSR, and on the other side, you have the Contras backed by the Reagan administration. It's what a lot of people in the US maybe learn about as like a proxy war. But a key part of your book's argument and of your research is that there's so much more to this war than that framing. So how should we think about the Contra War?

MATEO JARQUÍN: Well, when we think about the bitter fighting that eventually takes place between the Sandinista government and the Contra, it's hard to even know what name or label to put on it. For Sandinista commanders, they were fighting a war of foreign aggression, an intervention in which the Contras were like an arm of the US foreign policy apparatus.

But for those on the anti-Sandinista side, the Contra felt more like a local resistance force and the war was more like a Civil War in which US involvement played only a background role. So it's intervention or Civil War. But those things, of course, aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, those two perspectives feed into one another pretty neatly.


MATEO JARQUÍN: CIA and Defense Department involvement militarized grievances with Sandinista rule. Without American money and weapons, discontented Nicaraguans wouldn't have had the means to mount an armed challenge on anywhere near the scale that the Contra achieved. However, American policies didn't create opposition to the revolution in the first place.

So it would be a bit of a simplification to call the Contra a proxy army, much in the same way that it would greatly oversimplify things to say that the Sandinistas were proxies of the USSR just because their military campaign, likewise, wouldn't have been possible without Soviet bloc support.

DAN RICHARDS: The Cold War, in many ways, flattened the more messy reality of the Contra war. The upheaval in Nicaragua, like many conflicts in the second half of the 20th century, were affected by the Cold War but were about so much more.

MATEO JARQUÍN: The Vietnam War is a classic example-- American policymakers were convinced that it was a struggle over communism and Vietnamese leaders fundamentally saw it as a struggle for their national independence.

DAN RICHARDS: In other words, conflicts like the Vietnam War and the Contra War--

MATEO JARQUÍN: They were also about the collapse of European empires or decolonization.

DAN RICHARDS: The Sandinista Revolution and the Contra War were all wrapped up in Cold War politics, were also about the long history of US intervention in the region which had little to do with communism. And this more multifaceted view of the Contra War and the Sandinista revolution can shed new light on why exactly the Contra war wound down in the late Nineteen Eighties and how the country transitioned to a democracy by Nineteen Ninety.

MATEO JARQUÍN: So the revolution's ending was just as singular as its beginning. And I think the road to that outcome provides a really interesting view to how the world was changing in the twilight years of the Cold War.

DAN RICHARDS: By the late Nineteen Eighties, the Cold War was winding down. The USSR was on the verge of dissolution and the Sandinistas were losing the support of their most powerful ally. But on the other side of the war, despite President Reagan's interest in supporting the Contras by the mid Nineteen Eighties, the US Congress had made funding of Contra illegal.

The Reagan administration tried to get around these laws in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair, a scandal which led to multiple indictments of Reagan administration officials. The Reagan administration also, more generally, faced a growing movement in the Nineteen Eighties against US intervention abroad. The movement was growing on the left within the United States, but it was also growing around the world.

MATEO JARQUÍN: For instance, Reagan had a pretty hard time convincing American allies in Western Europe and Latin America that funding an insurgent war in Central America was a good idea. Washington held that the Sandinistas were the result of Soviet or Cuban meddling and that they represented a threat to international security.

But Latin Americans and Western European leaders, they tended to see Central America's revolutionary upheavals as caused by inequality, poverty, repression, and an understandable desire for national sovereignty. And as a result, Europe and Latin America tried to act as a counterweight against US intervention, in what has historically been an American sphere of influence which is pretty remarkable.

DAN RICHARDS: All of these shifting dynamics in the Cold War among National Liberation movements around the world--

MATEO JARQUÍN: Helped Central American leaders wind down their civil wars and build these peace agreements that committed each of their countries to transitions to democracies.

DAN RICHARDS: In Nineteen Eighty-Seven, after a series of meetings and negotiations, Nicaragua joined Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to sign not just a national but a regional peace accord.

MATEO JARQUÍN: Those peace agreements, the Nineteen Eighty-Seven Central American peace accords, were themselves part of an enormous wave of Democratic transitions that was rapidly spreading around Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

DAN RICHARDS: The Sandinistas, led by their president Daniel Ortega, signed a peace treaty that ended the Contra Wars the following year. And they agreed to hold internationally-monitored free elections. Daniel Ortega, who was the leader of the Sandinistas, ran as the Sandinista party's candidate for president and he lost.

CREW (VOICEOVER): Not long ago few Nicaraguans could have imagined this moment. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega handing over his title as president to 60-year-old Violeta Chamorro.

MATEO JARQUÍN: In Nineteen Ninety, the FSLN becomes the first armed socialist movement in the world that having taken power by armed struggle, handed it over peacefully through democratic elections.

DAN RICHARDS: It was a defeat for the Sandinistas, but many view it now as a victory for democracy around the world.

MATEO JARQUÍN: So I always go back to the reflections of Sergio Ramirez, a key Sandinista leader who had been Ortega's vice president. He's also a very celebrated novelist.

And he wrote in his memoir that, "The Revolution did not bring justice for the oppressed as had been hoped, nor did it manage to create wealth and development. Instead, its greatest benefit was democracy, sealed in Nineteen Ninety with the acknowledgment of electoral defeat. As a paradox of history, this is its most obvious legacy, although it was not its most passionate objective." Those were his words.

Basically, the Sandinistas could say that they didn't vanquish poverty and inequality, but they overthrew Somoza, they stood up to the United States, they built democracy, and hopefully ended Nicaragua's cycle of war, dictatorship, and intervention.

DAN RICHARDS: Which it did not. That former Sandinista official that Mateo just quoted--

MATEO JARQUÍN: Sergio is now in exile to the extent that democracy was a legacy of the revolution. It wasn't a lasting one, but that's a whole other story.

DAN RICHARDS: If you want to hear that whole other story, how Nicaragua's democracy fell apart in the Nineteen Nineties and Two Thousands, check out Trending Globally's limited series called Revolution Revisited. We'll put a link in the show notes.

andinistas left the party. In:


CREW (VOICEOVER): Many years later, he's back.

DAN RICHARDS: In the following years, Ortega would crack down on civil liberties in the country and Institute policies that would enrich his family and political supporters. He also put an end to free and fair elections. By the Twenty Tens, many of those in Nicaragua who had once supported the Sandinista Revolution felt that Ortega was behaving more and more like the dictator he and the rest of the Sandinistas had overthrown way back in Nineteen Seventy-Nine.

MATEO JARQUÍN: For them, there is nothing left of the revolution, and Ortega and Somoza are the same thing.



DAN RICHARDS: In Twenty Eighteen, there were a series of massive protests against Ortega.

MATEO JARQUÍN: People are out in the streets. It feels like we're on the threshold of something new, and that pretty quickly gives way to the horror of regime repression.

DAN RICHARDS: Over 200 protesters were killed. Since then, political resistance to the Ortega regime has all but been silenced.

MATEO JARQUÍN: For many Nicaraguans, the past few years have been like living through a nightmare.

DAN RICHARDS: Mateo has started to see more and more young Nicaraguans eager to learn about their country's history to try and understand how they got here, which is wonderful. But as Mateo sees it, it is only the beginning of a much longer journey.

MATEO JARQUÍN: I think that Nicaragua, as a society, hasn't really confronted the history of the revolution and tried to answer its basic questions. How it came about, what its character was, and indeed, what its legacies are. And by that, I don't mean that Nicaraguans don't think about the revolution. It's everywhere. It touched everyone.

What I mean is that, for most Nicaraguans, the revolution is something that they either fear or they love. It's something to condemn or to celebrate. And that's how people experience and remember times of revolution around the world. But it's a bit of a problem, I believe, that in Nicaragua, we haven't yet gotten past that mode of thinking. It's hard enough to write about the past in those circumstances, but it also feels more urgent and important.

DAN RICHARDS: Mateo Jarquín, thank you so much for coming back on the Trending Globally.

MATEO JARQUÍN: Thank you for having me on.


DAN RICHARDS: Up next, a recent flicker of hope in the fight for Nicaragua's democracy, and what it says about the dark and challenging politics of the country today.


This past November, Nicaragua's entry into the Miss Universe pageant won, for the first time in the country's history. However, Miss Universe whose name is Sheynnis Palacios is no longer allowed in Nicaragua.

To help explain why that is and what it says about the country today, I spoke with Stephen Kinzer. Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow in international and public affairs at the Watson Institute and he was a New York Times correspondent for 20 years, six of those covering the Sandinista Revolution and Contra War in Nicaragua. Here's our conversation.


Well, Stephen Kinzer, thank you so much for coming back on to Trending Globally.

STEPHEN KINZER: It's always great to be here at Watson.

DAN RICHARDS: So listeners just heard from Mateo Jarquín about the Sandinista Revolution and how to think about the Contra Wars beyond just the scope of the Cold War. And our conversation left off after the protests in Twenty Eighteen and the heightened levels of political repression we've seen in Nicaragua since then. So I wonder, how do you see Nicaraguan politics as having evolved since that period?

STEPHEN KINZER: Since then, the Ortega dictatorship has clamped down even further, closing down just about every non-governmental organization in Nicaragua, ranging from the rotary club to an order of nuns that was founded by Mother Teresa. All candidates who had hoped to run for president in the last presidential election were arrested instead.

There was a wave of arrests in which more than 200 were arrested. They were kept in jail over a year and finally thrown out of the country and had their citizenship taken away from them, which is a bizarre and rarely used punishment that I can't remember ever happening in Latin America. So Nicaragua today is under what must be the harshest and most brutal dictatorship in Latin America. And it's very difficult to see how there's a way out as long as the current regime is in power.

DAN RICHARDS: Somehow, of all things, the Miss Universe pageant became a sort of political flashpoint in Nicaragua. Can you explain a little bit for listeners how this became a moment in Nicaragua's politics, the crowning of Miss Universe?

STEPHEN KINZER: It's truly an extraordinary story, and it shows the extent of fear that characterizes the Ortega dictatorship. So Nicaragua, like every country in the world, I think, or most of them, has a little Miss Universe organization. I think it was two or three people. And they promote the Miss Nicaragua contests, and then whoever wins gets sent off to the Miss Universe contest.

Now, as I mentioned, the Ortega government has been relentlessly shutting down every kind of institution that's not connected to the government. They didn't think about closing down Miss Universe. But then something amazing happened. Miss Nicaragua, a woman named Sheynnis Palacios, who's in her early 20s, was named as the winner of the Miss Universe contest. This was the first time this had ever happened to a Nicaraguan woman.


There was an absolute explosion of joy inside Nicaragua. It was as if Nicaragua had won the World Cup.


People poured out of their houses. The streets were full. There were firecrackers going off. People were waving the Nicaraguan flag, which is blue and white. This beauty queen had actually worn a blue and white dress themed on the Nicaraguan flag when she won the prize.

DAN RICHARDS: And can you explain for our listeners why that's sort of a bold choice, because it sounds like a pretty harmless thing for someone representing a country in the Miss Universe pageant?

STEPHEN KINZER: That flag is not so well looked at in Nicaragua by the government. Nicaragua might be one of the few countries in the world where flying the national flag makes you a suspect because the government wants you to fly only the flag of the Sandinista front. So people charged out of their houses. They had an excuse now to be jubilant and to wave their flags.

Then the dictatorship became so terrified that they not only refused to allow her permission to come home, fearing the explosion that might happen, but they went out and arrested the woman who runs the Miss Universe organization. And the Miss Nicaragua pageant, Miss Universe, it's canceled. That's now also forbidden.

DAN RICHARDS: And is that all because she wore a flag that their regime doesn't approve of or-- how did this spin out into such an idea?

STEPHEN KINZER: I think there was a sudden realization that this woman has become super popular in Nicaragua. I don't think there's any doubt that if you were to take a poll in Nicaragua today, absolutely the most popular person, by a wide margin, would be Sheynnis Palacios. She also takes Nicaragua to a place where they don't have to think about repression and poverty all the time.

It's a symbol of hope in a time when there's not much hope in Nicaragua. She's young. She's beautiful. She arrived in Costa Rica recently and had a dramatic ebullient reception from the large Nicaraguan exile community there, but that's as close as she can get. So she's now, as she tours the world as Miss Universe, seen as a political enemy of the Nicaraguan government.

DAN RICHARDS: And how exactly are they doing that? What are they saying she's done wrong aside from wearing the colors of this country's flag?

STEPHEN KINZER: They came up with this bizarre rationale that the whole Miss Nicaragua contest is a kind of political opposition, and that it's all rigged to allow certain people to win, and that, this has actually also leapt up to the whole Miss Universe competition, that there are people up there trying to find ways to humiliate the Nicaraguan government. So they're relentlessly trying to attack this woman.

There were all kinds of insults against her. She used to sell little bunuelos, which is a kind of a sugar bun, to put herself through college. And the Sandinista newspaper said that she should be called not Miss Universe but miss bunuelos. And she also had a famous costume that was modeled after a Nicaraguan grackle, that dark bird, and the newspapers replied that the grackle is a bird that lives off insects and garbage.

DAN RICHARDS: Schoolyard insults aside, is there any reality to this implication that she's part of some sort of conspiracy against the Sandinista government, or even a sense that she's particularly politically motivated?

STEPHEN KINZER: Sheynnis Palacios never took a role in any public political situation. She never was a candidate for anything. She never endorsed any candidates. But the government has pulled out a couple of photographs that show her participating in the Twenty Eighteen uprising.

DAN RICHARDS: It's fascinating. I'm so curious for us to learn more about her over time too. I feel like the not being overtly political but wearing that flag color it's--

STEPHEN KINZER: I tell you, if there's ever a new situation in Nicaragua years ahead, Sheynnis Palacios will be somebody that everyone is going to look to for some kind of leadership. Nicaraguan civil society has been so repressed and devastated and decapitated. Many of the civil society leaders are not even allowed into the country. So she's out there as a figure who the government fears is very popular and the government's fear is correct.

DAN RICHARDS: As you and many others have described it, it seems like we're at a low point in Nicaragua's civil society and democratic institutions. This is a moment that seems to have ignited something for some part of the population. Are there other things you are seeing or reading that gives you a sense of hope or optimism that something could be changing in Nicaragua's politics, or is this really it right now?

STEPHEN KINZER: I don't see much hope or optimism in the near or medium term future. I think this regime has effectively established itself as in total control of the country. I think there might be some dissidents within some of the agencies of government and in the Sandinista front itself. But as long as Daniel Ortega is alive, I really don't see any possibility for change.

One of the big problems facing the Nicaraguan opposition, which is now scattered and mostly outside the country, is that it's riven by internal dissent. The Nicaraguan anti-Ortega people hate each other. They're always arguing with each other. They're accusing each other of having been collaborationists or having been outsiders or having been violent. They can't come up with a unified project. So I think that would have to be the first step. Before there can be a larger opposition force, there has to be some kind of coherent leadership and that hasn't emerged.

DAN RICHARDS: Mateo Jarquín's book looks at this moment, and something I found remarkable was people described feeling in the '70s, just a few short years before the Sandinista Revolution, that the Somoza regime was as powerful as ever, and that it was a low point and no one could see a way out, and the opposition to Somoza was fractured.

And hearing you describe right now the politics in Nicaragua, I can't help but hear sort of echoes there. I don't know if I'm just being glass half-full, looking for silver linings, but I guess, how do you think about that sort of unpredictability of regime changes and when and how they happen?

STEPHEN KINZER: All of them are individual, of course, and the circumstances differ greatly from country to country. I'll tell you one thing that the Nicaraguan people have learned very painfully just the way the people of Iran have learned it. And that is, when you violently overthrow a government, you are placing in power people whose instrument is violence.

When you're a guerrilla fighter, you cannot be open-minded and tolerant. You have to be paranoid. You have to think that everybody is trying to kill you because in many cases, they are. And it's very difficult to make the transition after you take power and decide, OK, now, I don't have to be paranoid. I don't have so many enemies. Now, I have to be inclusive and talk to everyone else.

So I think the armed option for Nicaragua does not exist. And it's because Nicaraguans realize it's only going to promote another clique of fighters and that's going to start the whole process again. Nonetheless, Nicaraguan history is cyclical, and their great poet Rubén Dario famously wrote--


"Nicaragua is made of vigor and of glory."

And Rubén Dario, like today's Sheynnis Palacios, is a figure that Nicaraguans look to for inspiration. And as long as those figures are there, both in history and in real-life, something is bubbling in Nicaragua. And I'm eager to see how that plays out.

DAN RICHARDS: Stephen Kinzer, thank you so much again for coming on to Trending Globally.

STEPHEN KINZER: Great to be with you.


DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Zach Hirsch. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield and additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you want to learn more about or read Mateo's book, The Sandinista Revolution-- A Global Latin American History, we'll put a link to it in the show notes.

We also invite you to check out our limited series on the history of the Sandinista Revolution at Trending Globally called Revolution Revisited. It features both of the guests you heard on our show today, along with former Sandinista officials themselves. We'll put a link to that in the show notes as well.

As always, if you have any questions, or feedback, or ideas for episode topics or guests, shoot us an email at Again, that's all one word, And if you haven't subscribed to the show wherever you listen to podcasts, please do that too. It really helps others to find us. Thanks so much for listening. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally.





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