Competing Claims: The Struggle for Title in Nicaragua

Article excerpt


Nicaragua's Sandinista Revolution of the 1980s left the country's property scheme in a state of disarray. For eleven years, the leftist Sandinista government instituted mass land confiscations and agrarian reform that caused many individuals to lose their property and flee the country. The transition to democracy begun in 1990 has been a difficult process for the country's new presidents who have been forced to reconcile competing claims and fight corruption from within their own ranks. In this Note, the Author examines the property legacy created by the Sandinista Revolution. With another round of presidential elections scheduled for November 2006, the Author also examines whether Nicaragua will be able to escape the wave of leftist leaders who have emerged successful in recent elections throughout Latin America. With the international community once again focusing its attention on Nicaragua, the Author suggests that the country must finally resolve the status of its land titles in order to attract foreign investment and increase its prospects for lasting democracy.


     A. The Somoza Years
     B. Revolution and Sandinista Rule
     C. Transition to Democracy
     A. Property Reform Under the Sandinistas
        1. First Steps
        2. Decree Number 760: "The Absence Law"
        3. The Revolution Spreads: The Advent of
           True Agrarian Reform
        4. The Sandinistas and the 1987
           Constitution: An Attempt at
           Constitutional Legitimacy
        5. The Revolution Falters: Protecting
           the Legacy
     B. Democratic Attempts to Reconcile Sandinista
        Land Policy


In many ways, Nicaragua's entire turbulent history over the last century can be characterized as one large property dispute. As a nation of 5.6 million people in Central America, (1) Nicaragua's household poverty index of 63% (2) places it among the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere. (3) As in many parts of the developing world, the concentration of Nicaragua's wealth in the hands of a small minority had, up until the Sandinista Revolution of 1979, historically deprived the majority of the nation's citizens of the ability to own land. (4)

The Sandinista Revolution brought Nicaragua much more than just land reform, however, as it sparked a decade-long civil war that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Nicaraguans and a national economy crippled by massive debt and utter ruin. (5) Depending on one's point of view, the situation in Nicaragua at the end of the Sandinista Revolution in 1990 was either much better, or much worse, than it was in 1979 when the violence first began. (6) Political biases aside, however, there was no arguing with the fact that the country's economy was in shambles both before and after the Revolution.

Exhausted from eleven years of violence, yet left with little in the way of lasting reform, Nicaragua found itself faced with two dilemmas at the end of the Sandinista Revolution in 1990. Not only was the nation faced with accomplishing the Revolution's initial goal of providing for the poor, but it was also charged with correcting the illegal actions taken by the Sandinista leadership that ran afoul of the rights guaranteed by Nicaragua's Constitution, and even the Sandinistas themselves, at least on paper. (7) While Nicaragua has been forced to address many of the legacies of its civil war and the Sandinista-led Revolution over the last fifteen years, the Sandinistas' property schemes have been the most difficult to confront. (8) Indeed, as former Secretary of State James Baker once remarked, "the investment community is going to take one more look at Nicaragua.... If [it doesn't] have policies in place by then or at least don't show that [it is] creating an environment for investment, they're going to go somewhere else. …