The Woman Who Saved the Sandinistas

Why you should care

Nora Astorga is remembered for a seduction and an assassination, even though her life was spent rebuilding Nicaragua’s government.

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Nicaraguan Gen. Reynaldo Perez Vega — known as “El Perro,” or “the Dog” — had finally gotten what he wanted. After more than a year of sexual advances toward his beautiful 28-year-old lawyer, he had finally been invited to her apartment for an assignation. Vega, deputy commander of the National Guard, had a reputation for aggression and was known for his violent crackdown on the Sandinista movement. Little did he know that Nora Astorga had company: Sandinista operatives were lying in wait for the general, intending to kidnap him and exchange him for political prisoners. When Vega resisted, they slit his throat. His body was later found wrapped in a Sandinista flag.

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Young Sandinista soldiers in Masaya, Nicaragua.

Source John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty

While Astorga’s reputation as a Nicaraguan Mata Hari is what immortalized her, her career neither began nor ended with her seduction of Vega, which took place on March 8 — International Women’s Day — in 1978. Ever the radical, Astorga was a courier for the Sandinista movement during her time as a law student, and was heavily involved in creating so-called safe houses for Sandinista operatives. After Vega’s assassination, Astorga fled to a Sandinista training camp. While there, and pregnant with her third child, she learned to shoot an AK-47 and braved the camp food despite morning sickness. She was sent abroad seven months later for her health, only to return to Managua the following July when the ruling regime toppled, to become an influential leader in the new government. Astorga, who was often photographed in fatigues, proved her determination not just to knock down regimes she opposed but also to build something better.

“Nora Astorga was seen, and continues to be seen by those who appreciate the real Sandinista struggle, as a great heroine,” says Margaret Randall, author of Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle. “She was an exceptionally brilliant and creative fighter, who displayed that brilliance and creativity in the diplomatic arena as well as in battle.”

Born into wealth in 1949, Astorga and her family benefited from the Somoza family’s de facto rule over Nicaragua. But as Anastasio Somoza García’s presidency was followed by those of his two sons, Astorga wasn’t focused on her own comfort. During her two years of college in Washington, D.C., she joined various radical groups. When Astorga returned to Nicaragua to study law, she started working with the underground Sandinista resistance. In 1978, the year of Vega’s assassination, tensions were particularly high in the country. Years of growing discontent with the dictatorship had boiled to the surface with the assassination of publisher Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a powerful opponent of the Somoza family. In joining the Sandinista cause, Astorga was risking not just the wrath of the powers that be but also of her own family — which, in the early 1970s, included a husband, also an activist, though less radical than Astorga, and two children.

At just 37, Astorga was an international diplomat, mingling with the elite and scoring major aid packages for Nicaragua.

Astorga’s reward for her numerous personal sacrifices in service to the revolution was promotion to chief prosecutor when Anastasio Somoza Debayle was deposed in 1979. In her new role, she participated in nearly 6,000 human rights trials of former Somoza operatives. She went on to work in the Nicaraguan foreign service, where her formidable intelligence and charm quickly propelled her to prominence. She rose so high that she was nominated as ambassador to the U.S. — but was rejected due to lingering American displeasure over the fall of the Somozas. Instead, she became the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations.

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From left: Nora Astorga, Sam Dolman and Sergio Ramírez.

Source Marcel Antonisse/Anefo

At just 37, Astorga was an international diplomat, mingling with the elite and scoring major aid packages for Nicaragua. Despite this, people, particularly her colleagues in global diplomacy, seemed incapable of looking beyond her Mata Hari past. One New York Times article from 1986 about her entrance into the U.N. quotes a “Western male ambassador” as saying, “She wears her past like other women wear cologne.” Astorga continued to show up to events when others thought she would cower. She wrote speeches for President Daniel Ortega on his foreign tours and was ever vocal about Central American issues. In 1988, at age 39, just two years after taking the U.N. post, Astorga died of cervical cancer.

“Her early death from cancer was a terrible blow, to the movement and to those who knew Nora personally,” says Randall. Astorga, and other female Sandinista leaders, continue to be largely unsung in the historical record. When they are mentioned, they are frequently misunderstood. “In order to evaluate Sandinista women with anything resembling honesty and nuance,” Randall notes, “one needs to live among them.”

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