The Nicaraguan contras (was Re: Chavez and Fighting Back History)

Jose G. Perez jg_perez at
Tue Aug 1 03:44:08 MDT 2000

>>The contras were soundly defeated as it was. They had no physical or
popular base inside the country and were routed whenever they took on
the army which was rare. Most Nicaraguan veterans told me that the
contra regulars would just thrown down their guns and surrender when
ever confronted by the army.<<

    If only it had been so!

    The contras were never "soundly defeated." That is why in 1987 the
FSLN decided it had no alternative, after years of refusing, but to
enter into direct negotiations with them and did sign a peace accord
at Sapoá with their commanders. This accord reflected the military
realities in the field. The FSLN was much stronger but unable to
defeat its opponent decisively. The National Resistance was allowed to
concentrate its forces in certain areas and remained armed pending the
holding of elections, which were moved up from the end of 1990 to the
beginning of the year. Press censorship and other similar measures
were lifted; and it was stipulated that after the elections, the
former members of the National Resistance would receive individual
plots of land to farm if they wanted them.

    The reason the contras could not be defeated is precisely because
they did have a social base. Initially that social base was especially
concentrated among the Miskitu Indians, and it must be recognized that
this was mostly the result of the FSLN's mistakes. Through the
autonomy formula, they were able to break up the contra-Miskitu
alliance, but as it turned out the FSLN did not have the time nor
resources necessary to win the trust of the Miskitu population.

    Beginning in 1984 or so, as the war deepened, throwing the country
into a deep economic and social crisis, the contra's social base grew
to encompass a big fraction of the peasantry of the "agricultural
frontier." They also had significant support in the mayor cities and
towns of agricultural zones, as was evident from their attack on
Ocotal in mid-1984, which they overran and occupied briefly, something
they were able to do even though there was a big military base on the
opposite side of the highway from the town, because some of the
contras slipped into town the night before and were hidden by some
fifth columnists.

    The resentment of the peasants towards the revolution came from a
couple of sources. One was that the FSLN took apart the traditional
commercial and financial networks in the countryside after taking
power, but was unable to effectively replace them. The state
established a monopoly in basic grains, buying from the peasants at
fixed prices, but at the same time it made a decision to finance the
war by printing money, which made inflation unstoppable. This meant,
in effect, that the countryside was subsidizing the FSLN's social
program in the cities, and getting ruined economically, making it
dependent on state credits and handouts, which, frankly, many hated.

    Nor were the peasants getting as much back in terms of social
change as you might imagine. The agrarian reform prioritized
collectivization, state farms and cooperatives in which people worked
the land together. This was something which peasants in this
agricultural frontier zone were slow to warm to, to say the least.
Even many who joined cooperatives would have preferred to work
individually. Yet in the four years I lived in Nicaragua, I did not
meet a single peasant who had ever received an individual plot of land
and title to it to work it on his own from the revolution.

    As the war deepened the issue became more important, for to join
an FSLN cooperative was equivalent to signing up for military duty:
you had to assume the cooperative would be attacked. And, of course,
the military organization of co-op members meant the contras would
view them as a military target. Generally, the further away you got
from the major towns towards the "agricultural frontier", the stronger
the contra sympathies. I remember going on a trip in 1984 to the San
José de Bocay and El Cuá zone (near where Linder was later killed),
and asking one peasant at a tiny settlement where we had stopped for
water and to ask about the road ahead whether there were any contra in
the zone.

    "You're pulling my leg," one said. "This is the seed-bed of the
contras. I have three sons with them right now." And that was early
on, near Honduras. Later the whole agricultural frontier strip all the
way down to Costa Rica would become, to a lesser or greater degree,
like that.

    As the contra rebellion spread into regions like Boaco and
Chontales, its social character also tended to evolve, and it stopped
being solely or largely a mercenary aggression, and also became a
peasant movement which, under the circumstances, could only have a
politically reactionary character despite its plebeian base.

    This peasant wing eventually became disenchanted with the contra
leadership, as the Miskitus had before them, and wound up finally
pushing to one side the civilian contra directorate and the general
staff of the "strategic command" headed by former GN colonel Bermúdez.
The contra leadership that signed the peace agreement with the FSLN at
Sapoá was not at all the same one which has started the war, one of
the reasons why a peace agreement was possible.

    By 1988, it was my estimation, that the revolution was finished,
and that the real turning point, when the revolutionary tide began to
ebb, had come early on, by 1982 or 1983, shortly after the beginning
of the war. This ebbing was reflected politically by a series of
decisions the FSLN adopted in 1983, especially after the Grenada
invasion, like institution of the draft, asking the Cuban teachers to
leave (which meant closing down hundreds of schools in the
countryside), the holding of bourgeois-democratic style elections, the
adoption by the FSLN of a social democratic coloration, the nomination
of Sergio Ramírez for vice-president instead of the person most
popular with rank-and-file FSLNers and who spoke most openly about the
social and class character of the revolution, Tomás Borge.

    In 1988, with perhaps isolated pockets in places like Estelí, I
don't believe the FSLN had majority support in the major cities nor in
the countryside. The war and the economic and social crisis it
provoked had atomized and demoralized the population. The FSLN's
intransigent opposition to negotiating with the contra led many
Nicaraguans to blame the Sandinistas for the continuation of the war,
and to turn against the frente. The fact that the FSLN leadership
finally decided it had no choice but to negotiate with the contras
deepened the political damage, because they had been so intransigent
in opposing such negotiations for years.

    The social advances that the revolution had initially brought were
largely or completely reversed by 1986 or 1987, or had been dwarfed by
the crisis. Most of the rural schools had closed because they did not
have teachers. The hospitals were in terrible shape, medical posts had
been closed or abandoned, the rationing system had broken down and
Sandinista Defense Committees and other mass organizations had largely
ceased to function, or soon would. The big majority of the population
was pushed into a grinding, demoralizing day-to-day struggle for

    Of all the people I know who were concerned about Nicaragua or
following it for one reason or another, I think I was the only one not
in the slightest bit surprised by Mrs. Chamorro's election victory.
What surprised me, frankly, was that her electoral victory was not
more overwhelming.

    People weren't voting for Mrs. Chamorro's social or political
program, nor for her imperialist backers, but for peace and an end to
the terrible, maddening economic dislocation the war had brought, the
galloping inflation, the overnight doubling of prices, the extreme
shortages and so on.

    They voted above all for her image as the head of a family who had
maintained at least a minimum level of civil contact between her four
children, one the editor of Barricada, one a contra director, one the
editorial editor of La Prensa and one the FSLN ambassador to Costa
Rica, throughout the war. They voted for her not so much to be
president but national grandmother, someone who, when the naughty
children started shouting and fighting with each other, would bring
them up short with a stern look and a reprimand: I will not have
fighting between brothers in this house.

    Rightly or wrongly, they did not trust the FSLN to maintain the
tenuous peace that had been achieved with the contras or to fix the
economy. In the year and a half or two between the cease fire and the
voting, the economic crisis did not abate. In early 1988, the FSLN
carried out a currency exchange where "new" Cordobas replaced the old
ones, I forget if it was 100,000 to one, or a million to one. Between
then and when Mrs. Chamorro took office, inflation took the new
currency from 10 or 20 to the dollar, where it started, to something
like two million to one, a ten million percent inflation in two years.
It must be admitted that the FSLN proved unable to control the
economic crisis, but then again, the only thing anyone could have
done is change the forms in which the crisis manifested itself.

    Decisive in stoking the distrust wasn't just economic issues but
also the FSLN's decision to maintain the draft, which was hated by
many Nicaraguans, including the poorest Nicaraguans. In 1988, I saw
with my own eyes a small anti-draft riot in the Monimbó neighborhood,
the poor Indian neighborhood of Masaya, and quite by accident, as I
happened to be there on a personal errand. That neighborhood, which
had been called the "cradle of the revolution" because it was where
the first anti-Somoza urban rising had taken place, is the LAST place
where I would have imagined the FSLN would lose support, but it had.
The disturbance was set off when a former FSLN combatiente refused to
let army recruiters take his younger brother. Unfortunately the army
recruiters lost their cool and started insulting this young man, the
crowd that gathered as the shouting and insults escalated turned
against the recruiters, who had to run away as the people overturned
their jeep and set it on fire. It took several hours for ministry of
the interior forces, acting very cautiously under orders from Tomás
Borge on the spot, managed to quell the disturbance. It was a
heartbreaking sight.

    Tied into all of this was a process of bureaucratization of the
revolution, both the use of administrative methods instead of
political methods and the granting or taking of privileges that while,
in many cases small, rubbed salt in the wounds of a population being
suffocated by an incredible economic crisis. The symbol of this in my
own mind was the dollar store in Managua. Originally it started as a
small boutique with duty-free-store-type luxuries, liquor and wine and
electronics, some clothes, things like that, and it was open only to
"official" foreigners, i.e., diplomats, accredited journalists of
international news organizations, functionaries of international
organizations and NGO's. It eventually expanded into a huge
superstore, with basically an American supermarket, all sorts of auto
parts, American magazines and so on. In this store, high-ranking
Sandinista functionaries and opposition deputies to the national
assembly would elbow each other for a place at the checkout line.

    It is not surprising that as the economic crisis grew, the small
but glaring privileges of some among the Sandinista elite, as well as
among a layer of opportunists and hangers-on who had latched on to one
or another government ministry or state enterprise although they had
nothing to do with the FSLN itself, led many of Nicaragua's poorest to
say, "son los mismos,"  "they are the same," meaning the same as the
old regime. At first it was a murmur barely whispered under their
breath, later they shouted it in defiance. People called the FSLN
troops "guardias" meaning Somocista National Guardsmen and Piricuacos,
which is Miskitu for rabid dog and is what the frente called the
national guard during the insurrection. And they would refer to the
contra as "los muchachos," the boys, the same term they had used for
the FSLN insurgents six or eight years before.

    I don't want to exaggerate and create the impression this was all
the population or most of it. The FSLN still had the adherence of a
big sector of people, maybe a quarter or a third of the population,
something like that. There was maybe a roughly similar-sized
contingent of anti-Sandinistas, and from all layers of society. Time
and again, I had the experience of meeting people who I had met two or
three years earlier as FSLN supporters and they were now opponents.
This encompassed all social layers, from high-ranking economists or
other functionaries to the lady who would sell me Coca-Cola by the
case. These included former members of the Sandinista militias, people
who had volunteered to go into the mountains and fight the contra when
the war first started. They represented the third contingent of the
population, who initially sided with the revolution but turned
decisively against it in growing numbers in the 1985-1987 period.

    That's why I wasn't surprised by Mrs. Chamorro's victory. What did
surprise me was the  "piñata" that took place in most government
ministries and departments afterwards, as FSLNers transferred all
kinds of goods and properties that had generally been considered to be
state properties into private hands, their own. The disintegration of
the FSLN central leadership following the electoral defeat also
surprised me. Humberto Ortega is now a well-to-do businessman in Costa
Rica. Luis Carrión went back to complete his university studies in the
states, I heard, and Victor Tirado returned to Mexico. Jaime Wheelock
and Henry Ruiz I've had no news of. Nuñez died, of cancer, I think,
shortly after the FSLN lost the elections. A few of the second-line
leaders have tried to form a new Sandinista movement in opposition to
the official FSLN, and former Vice-President Sergio Ramírez has gone
back to writing. Daniel Ortega, Bayardo Arce and Tomás Borge remain
with the FSLN, which still has the electoral support of about a third
of the population, and functions as an opposition party within the
framework of the Nicaraguan elections and legal institutions.

    It may sound from the way I've written this that mostly I blame
the FSLN for the defeat of the revolution, but it is late and I have
no time to rewrite. The main cause of the defeat of the revolution was
the pressure of imperialism, the revolution was beat to a bloody pulp
by the contra war. The things I've pointed to above are largely how
the damage done by imperialism to the revolutionary process then
reflected itself *within* the revolution and its leading contingent. I
did that to show why big layers of the  popular masses turned against
the FSLN, which they had hailed as saviors only a few years before,
and to explain how it could be possible that the RN developed a
genuine social base inside the country.

    One final point. The contra by and large did not throw down its
guns and surrender when they clashed with Sandinista units. The
Miskitus in particular had a reputation as wily and tenacious
fighters, which won them the respect of the Sandinista commanders.

    By and large, the contras, like any guerrilla force not yet ready
to make a final push for power, avoided pitched battles with large
army units. When they came across the army, they did turn and run. The
main Sandinista units in the field were the socalled BLIs, irregular
warfare batallions, and they were trained by recognized experts in
irregular warfare, the Cubans. These were some 600 men strong, and
could overwhelm any contra column, which typically were 100 or 150
men. In addition, the Sandinistas could count with limited air support
from a half dozen or so helicopter gunships (Soviet Mi-24s), and some
air provisioning from about a dozen MI-8 choppers (which were also
outfitted with weaponry, although not really as well suited to play
the role of a gunship). They also had some artillery, including the
BM-24 (if I remember the designation right) multiple tube rocket
launchers, descendants of the justly famous Soviet "Stalin organs" of
world war II that were fairly effective against the motorized units of
the Nazis. The Katyushas, if I remember the Soviet name right, are
very impressive to look at and intimidating, but need roads to operate
and troop concentrations to be fairly effective.

    The problem for the FSLN was that they could never really force a
big fight with the contra units. They lacked sufficient air transport
to throw a couple of hundred guys behind the enemy position and cut
off their retreat, and pursuing a retreating guerrilla force that is
basically intact after a light skirmish with regular army units is an
extremely dangerous proposition for the pursuer, as the chances of
getting ambushed or falling victim to a mine are very high.

    If the Soviets had given the Nicas adequate military equipment
early on, in 1983 or even 1984, the FSLN might have succeeded in
defeating the contra then, before the rebellion had become deeply
rooted anywhere except for the northern border strip with Honduras,
and a few fighters and a couple of radars would have prevented contra
air resupply from abroad, which is basically how the contras were able
to get to places like Boaco and Chontales and develop a base there.
This would have given the revolution time to catch its breath, it
would have been a huge morale booster to the majority which still
sided with the FSLN at that point, and would have allowed the
Sandinista leadership to confront some of the issues around the policy
towards the peasants as political questions. That the FSLN had the
political capacity to learn from mistakes and shortcomings is
unquestionable; the change in policy towards the Miskitus proves it.
The imperialists took advantage of every line of cleavage in
Nicaraguan society, manipulating religion, the peasantry's desire for
land, the Miskitu's awakening national consciousness, and never gave
the revolution a chance to catch its balance.

    The Nicaraguan revolution is rich in lessons, about the
worker-peasant alliance, about policy towards native peoples, about
the need for revolutionary militants to not take privileges, about the
need for internal democracy and accountability within the revolution's
vanguard organization(s), and many others. I hope someday one of its
leading participants will produce such a balance sheet.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Sam Pawlett" <rsp at>
To: <marxism at>
Sent: Monday, July 31, 2000 10:25 PM
Subject: Re: Chavez and Fighting Back History

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