The Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nactional, or FSLN, or Sandinistas) was a neo-Marxist politico-military organization founded in 1961–62 by a small group of Nicaraguan revolutionaries inspired by the example of the Cuban revolution.
Its goals were to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship and establish a nationalist, socialist, democratic, internationally nonaligned revolutionary state. As such, it was but one of several dozen revolutionary groups to emerge in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, and remained relatively obscure until the late 1970s.
On July 19, 1979, it became one of only two revolutionary organizations in modern Latin American history to seize state power after a prolonged armed conflict (the other was Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement).
It ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, when it was voted out of office, after which it became a minority party in a series of coalition governments. In 2006 a reconstituted FSLN captured the presidency with the election of longtime Sandinista leader and former president Daniel Ortega.
The group was named after Nicaraguan rebel leader Augusto C. Sandino (1895–1934) at the insistence of FSLN leader Carlos Fonesca Amador, who envisioned blending the group’s neo-Marxism with the country’s homegrown traditions of popular struggle, and interpreted Sandino as "a kind of path" and a potent symbol by which to more effectively generate popular support.
In addition to Fonseca, FSLN founders included Tomás Borge Martínez, Noel Guerrero Santiago, Pedro Pablo Ríos, Bayardo Altamirano, Silvio Mayorga, Iván Sánchez, and Faustino Ruiz.
Of this group only Borge survived to witness the revolution’s triumph; after 1979 he became Interior Minister. Other early members included Germán Pomares and Santos López, the latter the only early FSLN member who had fought in Sandino’s army (1927–34).
In the 1960s and 1970s the movement went through several phases and was shaped by a complex sequence of events. In general, the organization shifted its emphasis from the military to the political realm (gaining the political sympathies of the populace), and from organizing rural folk (campesinos) to organizing students, workers, and the urban poor.
Among the most significant events marking the early history of the movement were the 1963 Coco River and Bocay campaign and the 1967 Pancasán offensive in the mountains near Matagalpa, the latter nearly destroying the group and, coming the same year as Che Guevara’s capture and execution in Bolivia, compelled a strategic rethinking.
Thereafter, most organizing efforts shifted to urban areas. The aftermath of the December 23, 1972, Managua earthquake, which killed some 10,000 people, left 250,000 homeless, and exposed the corruption of the Somoza regime, enhanced the stature of the FSLN and other dissident groups.
In December 1974, in an audacious raid on the home of wealthy businessman Chema Castillo, the group captured and ransomed for $1 million several high-ranking officials and forced the release from prison of 14 Sandinista leaders.
In retaliation, from 1975 the Somoza regime arrested and killed many Sandinistas, including Carlos Fonseca in 1976. In the late 1970s the group fractured into three main "tendencies": the "Prolonged People’s War" faction (led by Tomás Borge, Henry Ruiz, and Bayardo Arce); the "Proletarian Tendency" (led by Jaime Wheelock, Luis Carrion, and Carlos Nuñez); and the "Insurrectional Tendency", or "Third Way" (led by Daniel Ortega, his brother Humberto Ortega, and Victor Tirado López).
In 1978–79 a series of insurrections in Managua, León, Estelí, and other cities, led by the Insurrectional Tendency, spelled the demise of the Somoza regime. After July 1979 these three factions were reunited in the nine-member National Directorate, which exercised de facto political power during the years of Sandinista rule.