Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Tropical Chekists: The Secret Police Legacy in Nicaragua

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Tropical Chekists: The Secret Police Legacy in Nicaragua

Article excerpt

As a revolutionary regime, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) that overthrew Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza in 1979 swept away all vestiges of the old order. Virtually every single government structure, including the constitution, judiciary, legislature, and all instruments of security and force, was demolished and replaced with an entirely new system. There were no efforts at "reform." Instead, there was a total break with the previous regime and all its components.

The FSLN led the revolutionary Government of National Reconstruction in a broad coalition with leaders of the anti-Somoza democratic opposition. That government, headed by a junta that scrapped the old laws and ruled by decree, enjoyed strong support from Europe, the United States and Canada, and much of the rest of the world. Although the United States and Western Europe quickly pledged and delivered large-scale support, the Sandinistas, while maintaining a democratic, pluralistic facade, immediately prepared to move against members of its coalition who did not share the FSLN's Marxist-Leninist ideology. Their ultimate goal was the establishment of a one-party state.1

Upon assuming power, one of the FSLN's first objectives was the creation of instruments of force under strict party control. The Front began to implement this policy within days of the coup against Somoza under the guidance-or, more accurately, under the direction-of Cuban and East German advisers. This was done while the FSLN enjoyed broad popular support and international goodwill. Non-FSLN members, although welcomed in many government posts where the FSLN lacked its own qualified cadres, were deliberately isolated from the socalled "power ministries"-the ministries of interior and defense. An exception was the first Sandinista defense minister, Bernardino Larios. A former colonel in Somoza's national guard who had defected to the Sandinistas during the revolution, Larios was instrumental to the FSLN, which lacked the necessary military and administrative experience to convert their patchwork guerrilla force (comprised of both hardened guerrillas and ill-trained, poorly disciplined volunteers) into a new, professional standing army-the Sandinista People's Army (EPS). Larios received materiel and trainers from sympathetic, anti-American regimes, such as that of Colonel Omar Torrijos in Panama.

Less than one hundred days after taking power, the FSLN finalized a plan to purge the government of non-Sandinistas through a combination of co-optation and isolation. The FSLN plan included undermining and marginalizing the private sector and independent labor unions, strengthening the economic sector, and gradually building its single-party Marxist-Leninist regime.2 The FSLN also formally took total control of the military; two months alter seizing power, FSLN leader and government junta chief Daniel Ortega announced in Havana, Cuba, the creation of both the Sandinista People's Army and the Committees in Defense of Sandinism (CDS). The latter were party-controlled block committees designed to enforce party rule and run domestic spying operations at the local levels3 and were modeled after the Cuban Committees for Defense of the Revolution.

Nicaragua's new revolutionary army, a ragtag force under Defense Minister Larios, had not yet been indoctrinated. Early recruitment had been easy, with thousands of eager young volunteers seeking to join, but these troops lacked the proper ideological indoctrination. Consequently, a September 1979 FSLN blueprint, aimed at creating the region's largest standing army and an even larger militia, called for a "purge [of] the army at all levels, eliminating those elements who are incompatible with revolutionary measures," followed by a massive military buildup, conscription, and mobilization under strict party control.4 It must be emphasized that, with the old national guard completely destroyed-its officers and men either co-opted by the revolutionary government, in revolutionary prisons, summarily executed, on the run, or in exile-the only army to purge was that of the Sandinistas themselves. …

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