|Central American University - UCA
Number 108 | Julio 1990
"Have you seen the main strewr of town?” exclaimed one international worker about El Almendro, the biggest contra security zone. “It's like something out of Gabriel García Márquez!” Indeed, the large numbers of contra soldiers waiting to receive civilian clothes, a medical check-up, one-month food rations and a ride to their home town resembled a surrealistic novel. The contras set up camp in this small village in southern Nicaragua in May. Almost every family had a contra or two slinging a hammock in the front room or setting up a plastic tent in a muddy yard. The former military barracks on the town square became the United Nations office where contras turned in their guns to begin the demobilization process.
The contras, who just months before were ambushing army patrols and kidnapping and harassing peasant, have become market sellers, offering everything from their CIAV-issued rubber boots to military compasses and even some undeclared pistols. Local women sell warm beer and soda on the streets. A beer goes for 75 cents, but a broken watch costs $45.
In El Almendro, and throughout the Nicaraguan countryside, the war as such is over. For the peasants whose lives have been disrupted by it, the simple absence of guns and death is a fundamental change. How profound that change is remains to be seen. Nicaragua now finds itself between moments—June 1990 is a watershed because contra demobilization is a reality, but the social and political implications of coming to peace with neither side having won have yet to become fully apparent. envío looks at the months leading up to demobilization and to what comes next—the challenges of and obstacles to peace.
Demobilizing a peasant armyWith the Sandinistas’ electoral defeat on February 25, the nature of negotiations with the contras changed. Both those in the field and the leadership in Honduras felt that UNO's electoral win was theirs as well, yet with no military successes over the army, they could not claim victory. Negotiations took place to work out their demobilization recognizing that they are neither a victorious army nor a defeated social force. Four accords have been reached with the government since February 25 (see June envío Documents section.). In each, the contras receive more benefits and rights within Nicaraguan society. The first, signed March 23, was negotiated at the Toncontín airport in Honduras. There the contras agreed to a ceas-efire, to disarm all troops in Honduras by April 20 and to send those in Nicaragua into special zones. The government promised to help with humanitarian aid, rehabilitation and readaptation.
The contras' tactics were soon obvious—when the accord was signed an estimated 12,000 contras were in Honduras, but immediately afterward all but the injured troops were sent back into Nicaragua. Since the Toncontín document did not specify a date for contra demobilization in Nicaragua, this put the contras in a good position to negotiate even more concessions.
In a “show of goodwill,” the contra command demobilized its remaining wounded troops in Honduras two days before the deadline. Of the 2,607 who participated, 217 turned in weapons and 2,390 demobilized without weapons. At the same time, the command sat down in Managua with the head of the army, General Humberto Ortega, to discuss the unresolved question of the thousands of contras now in Nicaragua. The resulting accord determined the location of the security zones and a calendar for demobilization. Five security zones were designated for the contras and two more for the Miskito fighters of Yatama on the Atlantic coast. The military force of the United Nations Observer Group in Central America (ONUCA) was put in charge of the zones, and a 12-mile perimeter around the zone was declared demilitarized, meaning that the army had to leave and all civilians had to give up their weapons. Not even police inside the zones could be armed. The International Verification and Support Commission (CIAV) was charged with the logistics of the zones—food, clothing and medical attention. The contras would enter armed and begin demobilization on April 25, ending by June 10.
When President Violeta Chamorro announced in her April 25 inaugural speech that she would retain Humberto Ortega as head of the army, the contras refused to begin the agreed-upon demobilization. Top commander “Franklin” (Israel Galeano) told his troops in northern Nicaragua on that date that anyone could demobilize who wanted to, but that he would not feel safe with the army still in Sandinista hands. Not one contra demobilized. (After two more sets of negotiated concessions, Franklin admitted in an interview with envío that “Humberto Ortega as a person does not worry us.”)
THE OTHER CONTRAS: SOUTHERN FRONT AND YATAMA
While a definitive demobilization plan was signed by the umbrella contra organization formally known as the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense (FDN) headed by Franklin, the far smaller Southern Front (which broke off from the FDN in 1988) continued to press for separate negotiations with the government. On June 13 it was security zone in which to demobilize, its own rural police force and its own development pole east of Nueva Guines.
Unlike the FDN, the Southern Front will set up its development pole in the area it fought—east and north of Nueva Guinea. The Southern Front differs from the FDN is significant ways—it did not ally itself closely with the US, it did not commit massive atrocities, and those who took up arms did so voluntarily. Many of them alternated between fighting and farming, and maintained close relations with their families. The heart of the Southern Front is made up of forces that were part of Edén Pastora’s ARDE troops. When Pastora left ARDE in 1986 the Southern Front joined the FDN umbrella group. In 1988 the Southern Front leader, Ganso, left the FDN in protest over Enrique Bermúdez’s continued role as top military commander.
While the Southern Front claims to have 2,500 fighters, the actual number is lower, and is probably padded by many civilian supporters who fought only sporadically. Given its nature as a fighting force well-integrated into the community, the blurred lines are logical. According to ONUCA 1,630 Southern Front members had disarmed and 100 were left as of June 28. In addition, a group is reported to be in Costa Rica refusing to participate in demobilization. Civilians in the Río San Juan area (on Costa Rica’s border) claim to have seen up to 2,000 armed and uniformed contras who have no intention of disarming.
Yatama, the name the various Miskito fighting groups took when they joined together in a coalition in 1987, also carried out its own negotiations with the government. Yatama had gone into two security zones in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) in April, but as with the other armed organizations, dragged out their demobilization until they concluded negotiations for their own development poles.
The three poles they were given in the RAAN are in Slimalila, some 25 miles north of Puerto Cabezas; one east of it in an already settled area called Wisconsin, and the third further northeast, where the Río Waspuk divides from the Río Coco. Yatama military leader Osorno Coleman expects each pole to become home to some 500 former fighters and their family members, many of whom are presumably among the thousands of refugees now returning from Honduras, where they spent the past nine years. As with the other groups, Yatama will be attended by INRA or the Repatriation Institute and an inter ministerial commission. Plans include the building of houses, health and education facilities and road improvement. Nothing has been said about Yatama members having positions in these ministries, as with the FDN.
Sumubila is the center of a forestry center burned down by the Yatama predecessor called Misura in 1983; Wisconsin in part of a five-community resettlement developed by Somoza in the early 1960’s after the border with Honduras changed; it is not dissimilar to the colonization of Nueva Guinea in the same period. These two poles sandwich the only road leading up to the Río Coco which was off limits to non-Yatama supporters for the past decade, although the Río Waspuk is traditionally home to the Sumu Indians.
Within ten days, the contras once again had the UNO negotiating team at the table. At this point the Honduran camps were closed, all the contras were in Nicaragua and UNO was in government. Many had moved into the five security zones, but others roamed freely, stealing cattle and harassing peasants. The contras were still in a good position to make new demands ands, and they did. Certain aspects of the first accords were reiterated—that demobilization would be completed by June 10, that arms in civilian hands would be collected and destroyed. But important new elements were added: plans to reduce the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) would be announced by June 10 and the contras would be given legal status as a political organization and offered areas for “development poles,” to be determined by May 31.
Despite these gains, demobilization moved at a snails' pace. On the first official day of demobilization, May 8, only 78 contras demobilized. After that the daily average was less than 100, making it clear that all of them could not possibly finish by June 10. Once again Franklin pressured the government by not complying with already agreed-to commitments.
The final accord was reached on May 30 and dealt primarily with the development poles. In return for yet another promise that the contras would all demobilize by June 10, they were given an area delimited by 23 locations—covering most of southeast Nicaragua and a section of central Nicaragua east of Rio Blanco. The accord also gave them the right to a rural police force made up of contras; representation in pertinent government ministries (Labor, Agrarian Reform, Repatriation among others); participation in local government and economic assistance to each demobilized contra.
Demobilization picked up after that, averaging close to 200 contras per day, but the numbers were still insufficient to guarantee demobilization by June 10. On Saturday, June 9, President Violeta Chamorro, accompanied by members of her Cabinet and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, went to El Almendro to celebrate a Mass culminating the demobilization, even though only 5,500 contras had actually demobilized. Two thousand more demobilized during the celebration, leading President Chamorro to say that peace had arrived and reconstruction could begin. The thousands of contras hanging around El Almendro with rifles slung across their backs gave the Mass celebrating the end of the war an eerie quality.
Those who demobilized on June 9 were followed by over 2,000 the next two days, making it finally apparent that demobilization was becoming a reality. In El Almendro, where the bulk of the contras were, ONUCA military forces accepted and dismantled the guns and gave the former contras a note to come back five days later for clothes and food from CIAV, which could only deal with 200 per day. CIAV acquired huge cattle trucks and took 50 ex-contras at a time to their respective homes. Truckloads of dismantled AK-47 automatic rifles were shipped to Matagalpa to be melted down. Finally more contras were demobilized than armed. El Almendro retained its surreal quality with more contras than civilians; without the guns, however, random shootings and violence were for the most part eliminated.
On June 27, a second celebration of the end of the war was held in San Pedro de Lóvago, north of El Almendro. Again President Chamorro, her Cabinet and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo attended. The difference this time was that Franklin and the entire contra high command demobilized. Franklin gave his own gun and sweaty hat directly to President Chamorro, who said she would save them for a museum. Along with Franklin, 150 contra officers demobilized, bringing the total to 18,994.
Final figures released by ONUCA report that 19,613 contras demobilized as of July 5. Of those, 16,408 turned in weapons, and 3,212 were demobilized without doing so, claiming to be couriers. The 19,613 also included 1,612 Yatama troops and 1,630 from the Frente Sur (see box).
Who are these 16,000-plus armed people? Were all of them active contras? After years of Sandinista claims that the contras amounted to no more than 8,000, and even contra claims of no more than 12,000, the extremely high final number is questionable. It is generally assumed that many more noncombatants demobilized than the 3,212 officially designated, but it is impossible to estimate how many. The noncombatants qualify for new clothes, three months worth of food and medical attention, as well as eventual participation in the development poles, just like the armed contras. In El Almendro, envío witnessed a 16-year-old girl dressed in a yellow blouse, tight black pants and high heels hand in an AK-47 that looked as if it had been out of use for years. Three male family members were showing her the process—they had apparently demobilized earlier. She also now qualifies for contra benefits.
El Almendro's closing on June 29 was marked with the destruction of 69 “Red-eye” land-to-air missiles. The contras who turned them in claim they are all that remain of the more than twice that number originally given them by the US, but Nicaraguan analysts are skeptical.
Although ONUCA has shut down its bases in each zone, it has confirmed that contra groups refusing to demobilize remain in the mountains of Nueva Segovia, Jinotega, Matagalpa and Chontales. Most of them (estimated by Witness for Peace volunteers at 100-150 in each of the five zones) are not directly responsible to or even in communication with the main leadership. ONUCA’s mission ended on June 29, but it kept mobile units in each area through early July to search for contras and offer them the chance to disarm. Whether the contras have military objectives or are just common bandits, they are now essentially a police problem.
Development poles: The contras' payoffWhat did the contras actually get out of the negotiations? Their chief gain was the right to form development poles. In short, they won in negotiations what they were never able to take in eight years of war with the Sandinista army: territory. They will have access to special funding, development projects and even economic ventures. They now have representatives in at least three government ministries and within the next months will be forming their own internal police force and political party. Just as a Mass was held to celebrate the war’s end while more than 7,000 contras remained armed, the contras are receiving a slice of economic and political power without having won the war.
Envisioning the Poles The idea of development poles is not unique to Nicaragua. The general framework used in other Latin American countries consists of creating an autonomous economic community that can then spread economic development to the surrounding area. Within the Nicaraguan poles, both basic grains and nontraditional export crops will be produced. In the May 30 accord, the government and the contras agreed that the poles would include access roads, schools, hospitals, purified water, housing, private plots of land and a community area. If this indeed takes place, the development poles could become far more successful centers of economic activity than the surrounding communities.
The first priorities will be housing, planting of crops and immediate food and medical supplies. A government commission made up of the heads of agrarian Reform (Gustavo Tablada), natural. resources (Jaime Incer) and repatriation (Roberto Ferrey) is in charge of the details.
CIAV plans to stay in Nicaragua and help establish the poles and reintegrate the contras in what they call phase 2 of their operations. Phase 1 ended with demobilization. While CIAV will administer the $30 million in US aid, it emphasizes that its role is more of observer than of participant. Its immediate projects include guaranteeing civil rights, repatriating the estimated 25,000 family members from Honduras and helping with initial housing projects and food supplies. Phase 3 will focus on economic development.
One of the greatest problems is that no one has yet clearly delineated exactly what the development poles are or even where they are located. In the south, one or more poles will be located on idle land within the area bordered by the 23 points listed in the May 30 accord. Franklin hopes to begin two of the five poles he has set his sights on by late July, one in the El Almendro area and one east of Rio Blanco, Matagalpa. Since a specific area has not been chosen for either one as of this writing, even his ideas are not very specific. In El Almendro at least, he envisions an autonomous community, and even wants a polytechnic institute to train former contras in technical skills.
One reason exact sites have not yet been finalized is that issues of land ownership continue to arise. While the contras and the government agreed on an area considered to be Nicaragua's agricultural frontier (around Nueva Guinea and east of Rio Blanco), an army officer in Nueva Guinea told envíothat every time the contras and the government settle on an area, someone emerges with a property title, marking it impossible to give the land to the contras. The only solution may be for the contras to look even further east than they currently are, closer to the true agricultural frontier, thus threatening the fragile ecology. Inexplicably, Agrarian Reform Minister Tablada has denied that land ownership is a problem. He says the ministry has plenty of land available for the contras in the El Almendro area and that the exact location will be made public in early July.
In any case, all the delays mean that the poles will begin with one strike against them. The planting cycle in Nicaragua began in May, and the first planting has al ready passed. It is unclear if the poles will be ready for the second planting, but at any rate a larger amount of food will have to be given to the emerging communities than originally planned, to tide them over until the first harvest.
Lumber: Economic boon or ecological disaster?A large portion of the area designated for the development poles includes forestland directly bit by Hurricane Joan in 1988. While much of the destroyed timber has now rotted, a fair portion is precious hardwood that can still be gathered and sold. One of Franklin's plans is to exploit the fallen lumber from the isolated Atlantic region. He has spoken of contracting with an American firm (though no specific offers have yet been made), offering former contras as the labor force to gather the load, which would be shipped out by helicopter.
A number of lumber companies have negotiated with the former and current Nicaraguan governments for the wood, but there are no firm contracts yet. Coincidentally, a US firm with no relation to the contras is reaching final negotiations with the Nicaraguan government for a joint venture to haul out the lumber by helicopter, according to Luis Fiallos of the state Popular Forestry Corporation. According to Fiallos, there is enough lumber that more than one company will be able to contract for the venture.
The entire area outlined for placement of the development poles is environmentally sensitive. Nueva Guinea was built in 1960 by cutting down tropical forest. Production was high in the first years, but since then deforestation has taken its toll. Areas that were originally cultivated in basic grains are now used for grazing cattle, furthering ecological damage.
Hauling out the lumber has a number of advantages for Franklin. First, it is potentially very profitable, because the lumber is of high quality. Second, it offers Franklin organized control of the former contras in the poles by employing them in day labor. The lumber project will, however, probably not get underway in the near future because ecological studies must be done and any project must gain government approval. Environmental consciousness is increasing in Nicaragua, and environmental groups will be watching every move carefully.
The choice: Stay or go homeThe development poles are eminently political, since they are formed by what was until recently a military force. In the afternoons in El Almendro, a contra unit can be seen in formation on the town basketball court, even though they no longer carry weapons. It remains to be seen to what degree this will effect the economic, social and political development of the poles.
According to Franklin, the contras have already formed commissions responsible for every small town and community the troops are returning to. When the development poles are ready to begin operation, the commissions will travel to each community and tell the contras it is time to come back.
One of Franklin's challenges is whether or not former contra soldiers can be convinced to return. Many observers believe that after a month or more with their families, they will be hesitant to leave them again; in turn they will find it hard to convince their families to leave their land and head to the poles. One distraught mother in northern Nicaragua describes her joy upon hearing from her son who is with the contras, but added that he now wants her to travel to the El Almendro development pole and start a new life. The woman, a member of a successful cooperative, does not want to leave her home but knows her son will never return. The same dilemma is faced by many families, and signals the potential for social upheaval in the countryside.
Others disagree. They note that many contras joined between 12 and 14 years old, and have spent their youth killing and robbing rather than planting and producing. Though they are solid peasant stock, they may feel out of place on their isolated mountain farms and actually welcome the call to return to what they know—orders and structure. A Sandinista who has worked for 12 years with peasants noted, “We have to remember that some have been fighting for five, six, even eight or nine years, and they don't have any idea of what production means.” He noted that many contra leaders are already aware of the problem, and have begun frank discussions with UNAG (Nicaraguan Union of Farmers and Cattle Ranchers). Individual decisions may end up being made on a class basis—for those who go home to families with land and relative stability, the tendency will be to stay. For those whose families do not have land, or who have lost touch with their families over the years, the poles may be the best choice.
Franklin claims to have 1,000 contras waiting to form the development pole east of Rio Blanco, but independent sources put the number closer to 200 and say many of those want to leave and visit their families. Franklin originally said that the majority of the contras would go to the poles, but later lowered the estimate to below 50%. While exact figures are not available, it is becoming increasingly probable that far fewer contras will settle in the poles than originally conceived. Franklin's talk of five separate poles may be no more than a fantasy.
According to CIAV data, the great majority of the contras are originally from the north, especially Jinotega and Nueva Segovia. For many of those who have chosen to visit their families, it has meant a long trip across country at CIAV expense. Over 2,000 armed contras were shipped in Sandinista army vehicles from one security zone in the north to El Almendro in the south. (Reports vary as to why—some say that the contra leaders in the north did not want to demobilize and Franklin forced them to come south to comply; others say that Franklin wanted more troops in the south, to bolster either his security or his ego. After they demobilize, they want to return to their homes in the north, so they climb back on a CIAV truck, this time unarmed, and get a ride north. When the call comes from Franklin to return to the development pole in the south, back they will go again—this time without free transport.
WEEDING OUT THE NATIONAL GUARD
In the early eighties ex-National Guard officers and soldiers made up the bulk of contra forces. Trained by Argentine military and the CIA, they retained many of their repressive tendencies. Contra policies of kidnapping and killing campesinos and destroying the social and economic gains of the revolution continued from the early 1980’s through to the present.
From the beginning, the National Guard forces were supplemented by campesinos—some volunteers, many coerced or kidnapped. According to a report to Congress in 1985, 46 of the 48 high contra commanders were former National Guard members, though the report also pointed out that by that time the bulk of foot soldiers were campesinos. As late as 1987, this generally remained the case.
In 1988, however, the Sapoá negotiations forced a reshuffling of contra authority. Former Guard colonel and top contra military commander Enrique Bermúdez did not attend the historic cease fire negotiations, but sent Toño and Fernando from the high command. Bermúdez’s displeasure with the results of the Sapoá talks led to his expelling of but Toño and Fernando—he replaced them with two others, among them Franklin.
A group of younger, non-National Guard contra leaders responded to the expulsion by first writing a letter of protest, then calling for Bermúdez succeeded in deporting seven of the instigators to Miami. Fernando escaped and mounted a rebellion in the Honduran camps that was quelled when he was captured and also deported. Bermúdez reasserted his control, though divisions between Guardsmen and non- Guardsmen were intensified. Perhaps realizing that the negative propaganda of the National Guard presence would eventually need to be dealt with, Bermúdez was preparing loyal-National Guardsmen.
In early 1989 a number of National Guard leaders, among them “Mack,” were accused by the contra human rights organization of severe human rights abuses. Mack was jailed, soon released, and together with many other former Guard officers, forced to leave the contras through pressure from US advisors anxious to clean up the contras’ image. While reliable information about the ins and outs of internal contra politics is impossible to obtain, it is clear that most National Guard officers were weeded out by mid-1989.
The contras’ civilian directorate was never more than a front to help convince the US Congress to fund the contras. They suffered power struggles similar to the military command in 1988, and the pro-Bermúdez forces led by Arístides Sánchez emerged dominant. Bermúdez was elected to the civilian directorate in charge of field operations. But rather than signify joining of civilian and military command, it marked Bermúdez’s decreasing power, because the civilian directorates never had the power it claimed. According to the New York Times, in September 1989 Bermúdez met with a group of younger officers who allowed him to maintain his role as military commander but stripped him of all power. By January Bermúdez no longer held even a formal post, and settled in Miami. Non-Guard Bermúdez supporters—Franklin and Rubén—remained.
The contra leaders who demobilized June 29 were for the most part not former National Guard. They are of Franklin’s generation, generally property-owning farmers who joined early and moved up through the ranks while the contra army kidnapped thousands and burned cooperatives. Like the former Guardsmen, they maintain unequivocally that “the US is our friend.”
Choosing the south: Safety and mystiqueThe northern areas of Jinotega and Matagalpa were always the primary war theaters and where the contras have a strong social base. Why isn't Franklin choosing that region for a development pole? Why, instead, is he encouraging the mass migration of thousands of former contras and their families to the Nueva Guinea area?
The answer to this question may be found in how the contra social base was built up over the years. Sandinistas in the war zones have long acknowledged that mistakes made early on gave the contras a foothold in the area. In addition, contras won families over by convincing young boys to go with them, thus corralling the whole family. But the contras also kidnapped randomly, killed anyone they suspected of being a Sandinista supporter and sowed terror in areas known to be Sandinista enclaves. The contras’ social base is built on Sandinista mistakes, contra family pressure and terror.
While they paint themselves as the great liberators of the peasantry, they fear that many peasants in the north will exact revenge. One contra foot soldier in El Almendro told envío that while he planned to visit his family, he did not feel safe remaining there, “because we killed an awful lot of people.” For him, a development pole apart from the rest of the population is his only alternative.
While the security issue is by far the most important, observers of the demobilization process told envío that the contras also seem to have been deceived by legendary tales of Nueva Guinea’s agricultural wealth. Ever since 1960, when Somoza gave land there to peasants had formerly lived on what was to become the prime Pacific cotton land, Nueva Guinea has possessed an aura of being the best land in all of Nicaragua. Its fame is only partly deserved—while tropical forest soil is very good for production, cutting down trees leaves the shallow topsoil open to rapid erosion, and the high production levels are short-lived unless agricultural projects are carefully designed.
A third reason for choosing the area around Nueva Guinea is its accessability to the Costa Rican border. While the Honduran border served well in the eighties, Honduras will no longer offer the same shelter it once did, and the possibility of maintaining control of the southern border is appealing to those contras still enamored by the idea of a renewed war. When the area available for the poles was announced, it appeared to many that the contras were securing for themselves effective control of the center of the country running north to south. With one pole in the southeast and one east of Rio Blanco, the contras could hop from one safe area to another, and conceivably establish a supply network along the center strip of Nicaragua, even cutting off the key Rama road and all of eastern Nicaragua—their unrealized strategic goal during the war. While some continue to emphasize this military threat, others assert that the contra’s tactics are moving toward the political sphere.
Rumor vs. RealityMany residents have misunderstood the May 30 accord to mean that each of the towns mentioned will be a development pole. For some towns, the prospect of being a pole is welcomed, while others see it as a threat. A restaurant owner in Santo Tomás, Chontales, expressed hope that when the town became a development pole, the economy would improve. In Bocana de Paiwas, not even named in the accord but traditionally known as a Sandinista bastion, rumors fly that a pole will be located there and that all the residents will have to leave. Either way, it is no more than a rumor, since the poles will be located in rural areas and the whole infrastructure will be built from the ground up.
The contra foot soldiers hanging out in El Almendro have no clearer vision of the development poles than these civilians. Most of them say almost the same thing, which sounds suspiciously like a line given by their superiors. When journalists interviewed soldiers in May, before demobilization began, almost all said that every last Sandinista would have to leave Nicaragua before they would put down their guns. One month later, with Sandinistas still in Nicaragua, foot soldiers said that peace had arrived and they only wanted to work and make a life for themselves. How much the radical change in what they are saying actually reflects changes in their own attitudes, and not just new lines passed down to them, remains to be seen.
In El Almendro the military leadership keeps a tight hold on information. Thus, many contra fighters from the north, finding a warm reception in overwhelmingly pro-contra El Almendro, expect that they will receive a heroes' welcome when they go home. They have also been led to believe that because they are all demobilizing, the entire army must demobilize as well. One civilian in El Almendro told with outrage that there is still army in the Somoto area where he had recently traveled. Because the contras in the zones only receive information from their leaders, they have a distorted view of the rest of Nicaragua. This will surely lead to confusion, and maybe worse, as they return to their own communities.
In one classic example of information distortion, in the midst of negotiations in late May, contra leaders claimed that army soldiers had ambushed a truck carrying unarmed demobilized contras near Waslala, Matagalpa and killed 14 of them as well as 5 civilians. The details, including date and location, were contradictory from the start. The UNO government investigated the claim and found it to be totally false, obviously a ploy to highlight nonexistent security issues and give the contras greater negotiating room and time. Even when proved false, the rumor itself continued to influence attitudes. Contras in security zones two weeks later still claimed the ambush had taken place, and also recounted other unverifiable tales of army harassment of former contras. While leaders on all sides speak of reconciliation, the negative power of rumors illustrates the depth of mistrust to be overcome.
Threats to cooperativesPeasants in the interior of the country have been the most severely affected by the war. Husbands, brothers and sons were either drafted by the army or kidnapped by the contras. They were forced to give cattle and other food to both sides, and their production cycles were interrupted by combat. For them, the most important thing is that the war is over.
Those organized in cooperatives, while also grateful for the wars end, remain afraid. Many cooperatives in war zones had formed self-defense militias due to constant attack by the contra. They were not consulted in the negotiations that determined that their area would be demilitarized. When the contras began moving to the security zones they were the only armed force there and the civilians had no defense.
Initially tensions were high in these cooperatives. In one just outside of zone 1 (near Nueva Segovia), contras entered and told the members that they had four days to get off the land because they wanted it for themselves. ONUCA successfully intervened and the contras stopped the harassment, but similar incidents occurred outside of Río Blanco as well. In one incident reported by Witness for Peace in May, contras tried to kidnap two boys from a cooperative outside of Río Blanco. Cooperative members took their guns from where they had been stored in a building and chased the contras away. Incidents such as these have been rare, however, and for the most part cooperatives that gave up their arms have not had serious problems.
Many cooperatives are located on property that was originally confiscated by the government, and fears abound that the former owners will come back and demand the land. Some owners have already threatened peasants, capitalizing on ignorance about peasants’ rights. In some cases land titles are in fact unclear, and conflicts are bound to arise. Many believe that owners will use former contras to get land back by force.
When the army pulled out its military bases from all security zones, this created a problem for the peasant residents of El Ayote, the zone north of Santo Domingo in Region V. A resettlement community of peasants fleeing the contras had grown up around the security of the military base there over the last few years. When the military pulled out, 30 peasant families followed, fearing for their safety. For the most part, however, as more and more contras demobilized, cooperative members joined with other peasants in a collective sigh of relief because they can now farm without fear and begin to make long-term plans.
The relief is only relative; potential violence is still on peoples' minds. One northern town is considering postponing an annual party to raise money for the communities' preschool. Liquor is generally served, and local leaders fear that political differences between returned contras and Sandinistas could lead to violence.
Rural police: Re-armed contrasOne of the last points on which agreement was reached in the accords regards the rural police. In the May 30 accord, the government and the contras agreed that “a police force for internal order will be immediately formed with the participation of former resistance [contra] combatants. Its fundamental goal is to guarantee the life and physical safety of the citizens who live in the zones.” The accord adds that the rural police will eventually be under the Ministry of Government (which administers the national Sandinista police force) and will be trained by the UN or a friendly government.
Less than a week earlier, Agrarian Reform Minister Tablada assured Barricada that there was no discussion of an independent police force for the contras. When the accord was signed, Sandinista supporters were understandably outraged. With former contras, who only months ago were attacking and killing civilians and targeting Sandinistas, now making up a legally-sanctioned armed force, the specter of death squads reared its ugly head. The contras who make up the police force will likely be the most hard-line contras who do not want to go home or who cannot because of past actions. They are the ones most conditioned to a war mentality, and their armed presence is bound to destabilize the rural zones.
ONUCA military forces currently control the security zones. Thus, if there is an incident in a security zone involving either a mobilized or demobilized contra, the ONUCA forces generally intervene on behalf of the unarmed Sandinista police. In early May, before the demobilization began in full force, a group of armed contras entered a small town just outside of zone 1 in Nueva Segovia. When they began to drink heavily, community members felt threatened. The police chose not to intervene, but called upon ONUCA, which convinced the contras to leave. ONUCA’s mission, however, is temporary, and Sandinista police will eventually have to deal directly with the rural police, made up of former contras.
Franklin at one—that now has been retracted. According to Tablada, there will be 150 rural police made up of both former contras and other Nicaraguan citizens. They will be under the control of the Ministry of Government and will receive special training. Minister of Government Carlos Hurtado traveled to Spain in June to discuss Spain's participation in the training.
Hurtado also announced in June that the national police force would be enlarged from 5,000 to 10,000 in order to combat “post-war crime.” This increase could also allow Hurtado to train pro-UNO police more willing to move against striking workers or illegal squatters.
Contras in the political realmWhile the contras' immediate priority is forming the development poles, they also plan to create a political party. According to Franklin, they will first form a legal organization, the “Nicaraguan Resistance,” retaining their former name, and later a party.
As autonomous communities, the poles will also choose their leadership. This means that the contras will control the poles, while UNO government ministry delegates are assigned there as necessary. Contra-led development pole commissions and local municipal councils, even if UNO-dominated, may have different priorities, and the poles' autonomy will be tested. One ONUCA official wrily commented that while development poles are not new, they are generally not controlled by a political force only recently demilitarized.
Where are the kidnapped?The end of the war has brought relief to all peasants in the war zones. For a portion of families, however, the anguish continues because a son, brother or husband was kidnapped by the contras and has not been heard from since. These kidnappings have been well documented throughout the war.
While contras began their kidnapping practices in the early 1980s, the issue drew national attention when seven young men and women from Managua who had volunteered to teach primary school in the mountains of Jinotega for two years were kidnapped. Their family members worked with the International Red Cross to free them from Honduran camps, but with little success.
While many of the kidnappings were political, as in the case of the teachers, many others were simply a way for the contras to build up their forces. As demobilization has progressed, those demobilizing have generally been between 18 and 22. These young men, “taken” at the age of 12 or 13, became the heart of the contra fighting force and no longer consider themselves kidnapped. Some have notified their families of their whereabouts or have gone home, but many mothers still do not know where their sons are.
The Mothers of the Kidnapped, a group that also includes other relatives, has compiled a detailed, confirmed list of 867 people kidnapped by the contras, and documented 5,000 others. As demobilization progressed, many braced themselves for the possibility that their sons would emerge as contra soldiers and disarm. They stated that political views made no difference—they just wanted their children alive. But of the 867 names, only 26 returned home—and most of them escaped from the contras and demobilized before formal demobilization began. With demobilization, the mothers are stepping up their campaign to demand an explanation of their children's whereabouts. A group traveled to El Almendro in June but got no information. Father Alvaro Argüello, who accompanied them, describes their entrance into town. “As we entered El Almendro, the mothers looked at contras on the road. Their eyes were darting all over, looking at each one. Some would say, “There's my child!” because a face looked similar.” The mothers' pressure only succeeded in forcing the contras to agree to release their list of casualties (though they have not yet complied one), and they have access to the CIAV list of demobilized.
According to Dani Chavarría, coordinator of the Mothers of the Kidnapped, the search continues on all fronts. The group has received information of two common graves, one in Nueva Segovia and one in northern Jinotega. When the contras returned to Nicaragua from Honduras in April, they apparently killed 70 of their prisoners in the Hamaca area on the Honduran border, as well as 90 in Nueva Segovia.
Chavarría situation is typical of many peasants. Her father was kidnapped from his private farm in Jinotega in 1984 and has not been heard from since. Chavarría has spent years looking for him and organizing other women to do the same for their relatives. In her case, however, she knows the name of the contra leader who kidnapper her father—Kalimán. He demobilized on June 27 and is allegedly now a member of the rural police in El Almendro. Chavarría has received no information about her father, but believes he was killed. Her demand is that Kalimán tell her where the body is. Many others are facing the reality that their relatives have died and they will never know where.
One woman from Managua, an active member of the Mothers, told envío that her son was kidnapped in 1984 while carrying out his military service. The vast majority of Sandinista soldiers caught were killed—the contras held no prisoners of war. The mother continues her search.
US public funding ends but private aid continuesAfter eight years of funding, equipping and advising the contra forces, the US government has essentially washed its hands of the monster it created. Of the $300 million in US aid to Nicaragua, $30 million is assigned for contra demobilization, but it is administered by CIAV rather than the contras, as they at one point demanded. What the US government built up, at times legally but for the most part illegally, it is now blithely allowing the Nicaraguans and international organizations to dismantle. As Franklin himself stated, “US foreign policy is always in US interest. We always received money with conditions. We were necessary at one time. But as soon as we were no longer necessary, it didn't make sense. With UNO in power we couldn't expect more aid.”
While the US government is now using other tactics to destroy the Sandinista project, US private interests continue to participate actively in the contra demobilization and readaptation process. During the years of US secret funding to the contras, Oliver North and others helped establish a network of private voluntary organizations eager to participate in the covert war. Tom Posey, leader of Civilian Military Assistance (CMA), a US paramilitary group, was part of that network.
According to a report to the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus called “Who Are the Contras” Published in April 1985, CMA was founded in 1983 “to take direct action against communism in Central America.” CMA sent food, medical supplies, boots and canteens to the contras, as well as volunteer mercenaries. In 1984 it sent advisers to help the FDN set up its own front in the south, based in Costa Rica close to where the former contras now hope to settle (the attempt to set up the front failed due to Costa Rican pressure).
Unlike the US government, CMA plans to continue aiding the contras directly. According to Franklin, it is one of the primary private organizations that has offered financial assistance for the development poles. CMA members, including Posey, also serve as advisers in the formation of the poles, and Franklin claims that on various occasions he has traveled to the US to see similar agricultural projects. When asked about CMA’s role and the contras’right to seek independent funding, Tablada commented, “In principle everything is channeled through the government, but it isn’t out of the question that they themselves can look for some type of aid.”
In addition to CMA, Franklin told envío that he is looking for funding from South Korea and Taiwan, both of which allegedly funded the contras through Oliver North's famous private network. There is no way to judge to what degree Franklin's requests for economic aid are aboveboard. Given CMA’s goal of ridding Central America of communism, the organization cannot be assumed to be amenable to continued Sandinista political activity.
If, in fact, Franklin's search for economic aid is not a cover for further military maneuvering, then he has a big project ahead in obtaining the necessary funding for the poles. The $30 million administered by CIAV is only part of what is needed.
Is the war really over?Most observers, including some ONUCA officials involved in the demobilization process, question whether the contras handed in all their weapons. Some say arms were left in Honduras, others say they are hidden in rural Nicaragua. In one unexplained incident, a CIAV worker travelling in the Río Blanco security zone recognized a demobilized contra on the road in military uniform. When asked why, the man stammered that he wanted to save his civilian clothes. His ability to find an extra uniform raises the question of what other military paraphernalia is hidden in the mountains.
Why would the contras choose to keep some weapons? For some, they guarantee their own security. For others, the stored weapons will offer business opportunities, whether armed robbery or arms trade. At El Almendro itself, small-scale arms trading has already begun. On the road to Managua, police stop vehicles coming from El Almendro to check that no former contra is transporting arms to sell in the capital.
Finally, by maintaining his troops together and keeping an arms stash, there is always the possibility that Franklin can call his men back to war if the move into civilian polities is not as rewarding as he had hoped.
Beyond warFSLN representatives at both the national and local levels have taken an amazingly optimistic approach to the development poles. Luis Carrión, in an interview published in Barricada on June 20, commented that “We have to recruit those peasants who were contras to defend the interest of all peasants instead of dividing them.... We can't see a peasantry divided between Sandinistas and contras.” For the Sandinistas at a national level, the military challenge has been replaced by the political. Carrión admitted that the contras “were clearly a peasant movement by the end,” and said the FSLN must work to create a movement that fights for peasants’ shared interests. Alejandro Bendaña, a historian and former Foreign Ministry official, recalled that peasants split between Liberals and Conservatives in the 19th century were forced to fight each other, though neither party served their interests.
Sandinista officials at the local level are dealing with day-to-day issues of contra resettlement, but even they agree that postwar issues are now the main concern. Primary among those are the security of cooperative members and Sandinista supporters, as well as how to integrate former contras into local communities, build a real peasant movement against encroaching UNO bourgeois policies and increase production in all sectors.
Since 1987, Nueva Guinea has been one of the few areas of the country where local peace commissions have maintained an active and effective presence (see envío, January 1989). As a result of three years of dialogue between church leaders, peasants, Sandinistas and the contras themselves, the base has been laid for reconciliation. Recently, contra leaders requested that local EPS officials monitor and mediate a meeting between them and UNO town officials. They claimed that they understood each other better than UNO understood them.
Some Sandinista leaders have expressed interest in carrying out formal workshops on reconciliation organized by the peace commissions or contacts in Managua. They have said that, while many peace commission members are contra supporters, the commissions have carried out crucial work. Opposition leaders in Nueva Guinea have said the opposite—peace commission members are all Sandinistas, but even so admit that they have been successful. The commissions' ability to win the trust of both sides shows that the first steps forward have already been taken, at least in Nueva Guinea.