Whether Sandinistas seized property in 1990; basis of ownership given to such property; programs or movements to provide such property to persons of indigenous background in or around 1990 [NIC37916.E]

Various sources indicate that the Sandinista government expropriated and assigned properties during its last months in power, the first half of 1990, and many of the disputes involving these and other expropriated properties continued throughout the following decade.

The most detailed brief account of the legal measures enabling confiscation or expropriation of properties by the Sandinista government, and a description of the measures taken by the Chamorro administration immediately after it, can be found in the 1991 annual report of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), which provides the following information (14 Feb. 1992, Ch. 4.6):

The right to property is a subject that has continued to provoke many serious problems in Nicaragua. The American Convention on Human Rights recognizes this right in its Article 21, and states that the law may subordinate the use and enjoyment of property to the interest of society, stipulating that no one shall be deprived of his property except upon payment of just compensation "for reasons of public utility or social interest, and in the cases and according to the forms established by law." Article 46 of the Constitution of Nicaragua establishes that all citizens enjoy the rights recognized in the various international instruments to which Nicaragua is a State Party, with specific mention of the American Convention on Human Rights. In the case of Mr. Carlos Martínez, the Inter-American Commission adopted a resolution in 1986, stating that the Government of Nicaragua had violated the right to property when it deprived him of his property without any legal grounds and without compensation.
As of July 19, 1979, a number of legal instruments concerning the right to property were adopted in Nicaragua. The first were Decrees 3 and 37, which were used as the basis for confiscation of property belonging to the Somoza family and its associates, as well as property belonging to members of the National Guard. Subsequently, laws were passed providing for the transfer to the State of property of persons who had absented themselves from the country for more than six months (Absentees Law); later, the Agrarian Reform Law was adopted and, in one way or another, affected the system of agricultural land tenure. Laws stipulating the confiscation of undercapitalized firms were also passed.
The property situation became even more complex with the promulgation, during the transition period, of Laws 85 and 86, which affected large-scale urban and farm property--the so-called "Piñata"--allocated to small-, medium- and large-scale owners connected with the losing Party in the elections. While there are many who feel that this measure benefited needy persons with scant resources or low-level officials, they also feel that it benefited important leaders of the Sandinista Front to whom valuable property was assigned, including State property or property belonging to individuals who had not renounced it.
The Government adopted various measures aimed at tackling this situation, while further measures have been proposed in the National Assembly. Mention should also be made of the serious disturbances provoked by consideration of the issue in the Assembly.
Accordingly, the Government set up a National Review Commission through Decree 11-90, for the purpose of reviewing the confiscations made and adopting appropriate decisions, indicating that the review process would be conducted "upholding the rights acquired by the campesinos that had benefited from the agrarian reform, the rights of cooperatives carrying out their social and economic function, and the acquired rights of the underprivileged." The Supreme Court of Justice later declared one of the functions entrusted to the Review Commission to be unconstitutional, on the grounds that it trespassed on the jurisdiction of the courts of justice. The procedure applied by the Review Commission was then modified. The Office of the Attorney General was entrusted with the task of processing the requests for review and issuing an appropriate verdict, and it handed down decisions in a great many cases. Information supplied to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claims that the decisions of the Review Commission encountered various obstacles with regard to their implementation, some arising as a result of the judicial procedures that need to be followed in order to complete them, and others originating with the persons now in possession of the property (ibid.).

Various journals continued to cover the issue through the 1990s. For example, The Washington Times reported that "in the last days of Sandinista rule, members of the government expropriated thousands of homes for themselves in what came to be known as the "piñata," after the children's game that involves grabbing for prizes," adding that "former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega still lives in a mansion seized from Arnoldo Aleman's current campaign manager during that period" (15 Oct. 1996).

Another 1996 report states that "just before yielding power to the Chamorro administration in 1990, high-ranking Sandinistas seized the property and goods of about 5,000 Nicaraguans," adding that

The Chamorro government was slow to react to these confiscations. A law passed in November 1995 validated some of the expropriations within the agrarian-reform framework, while others were reversed and the original owners compensated. Although progress continues to be made in settling land claims, the issue remains thorny and complicated (Los Angeles Times 27 Oct. 1996).

Another October 1996 article described the situation as follows:

With more than 8,000 cases of properties expropriated by the Sandinistas in dispute and with laws on property rights fuzzy, uncertainty reigns... Sandinistas confiscated huge holdings of the very rich. But they seized small and medium-sized properties - about 40 percent of agricultural land - in a quest to create cooperative state farms. As the unpopularity of such moves became increasingly clear...Sandinistas set about handing out lands.
...Government officials estimate that up to a third of the country's farmland is caught up in ownership disputes and sits untilled. The Chamorro government claims it has resolved nearly 80 percent of the property disputes. But analysts point out that this only means that a clear title has been validated. It doesn't mean that a dispute has been settled with either restitution or compensation. "We don't hear any specific figures for how many people have actually settled an offer" and received compensation, says a foreign official close to the property issue...In most cases property is not returned, leaving the government scrambling to make compensation (Christian Science Monitor 29 Oct. 1996).

A 1997 article reports on a deal between the government of Arnoldo Aleman and the Sandinistas struck to legitimize measures taken by the Sandinista government and the administration of Violeta Barrios de Chammorro which followed (LAWR 9 Sept. 1997). The latter had reportedly issued "66,000 property titles handed out under the agrarian reform law by her government, and ... [another law] which obliges those who received houses of more than 100 square metres to pay cash for them before the end of [1997]" (ibid.).

However, as recently as mid-2001 the issue of land or real estate ownership continued to be described as Nicaragua's most divisive and conflictive problem, with many failed dialogues on the subject and a number of agreements unfulfilled during the post-Sandinista governments of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and Arnoldo Aleman (Revista Espacios May 2001).

Further to information on land reform in Nicaragua provided in NIC28209.E of 27 November 1997 and other Responses, no reference to a program of land grants specifically or exclusively aimed at persons of indigenous background could be found among the sources consulted within the time constraints of this Response, and it is not clear from the above-cited documents how many of the properties expropriated or granted were for persons of indigenous background. However, various references to farm cooperatives during the Sandinista government in departments with Miskito and Garifuna populations were found. More recently, a report stated that "Nicaraguan cooperatives have been reduced by half, from 3,000 to 1,500 and the former beneficiaries are returning to the infertile slopes of the countryside, or to menial, low paying jobs in urban areas," adding that "all of the cooperatives in the Pacific departments of Carazo and Rivas have been seized [by banks] and bought up inexpensively" (CAR 11 Feb. 2000),

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Central America Report (CAR) [Guatemala City]. 11 February 2000. "Land Tenure: Reverting to the Old Ways." http://www.worldcom.nl/CAR [Accessed 18 Feb. 2000]

Christian Science Monitor [Boston]. 29 October 1996. Howard LaFranchi. "Nicaraguans in a Turf Fight Over Just Who Owns Land." (NEXIS)

Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), San Jose. 14 February 1992. Annual Report 1991. "Chapter IV: Situation of Human Rights in Several States." http://www.cidh.oas.org/annualrep/91eng/chap46.htm [Accessed 15 Oct. 2001]

Latin America Weekly Report (LAWR) [London]. 9 September 1997. "'Secret Deal' to End Property Problem; Government & Sandinistas Announce Bilateral Accord." (NEXIS)

Los Angeles Times. 27 October 1996. Home Edition. Michael Shifter. "The New President Faces a Country Divided by a Violent Past." (NEXIS)

Revista Espacios [San Jose]. May 2001. No. 12. Alejandro Serrano Caldera. "Procesos de Concertación en Nicaragua." http://www.flacso.or.cr/revista/nicaragua.html [Accessed 12 Oct. 2001]

The Washington Times. 15 October 1996. Final Edition. Tom Carter. "Sandinistas Still Occupy Seized Land." (NEXIS)