Why Did the Rearmed Rearm?
Salvador Martí is researcher from the Political Science Department of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and collaborator with the Nicaraguan and Central American Historical Institute (INHCA). The article summarizes a chapter from his doctoral thesis, "Revolutions, Rebellions and Protests. Social Transformations and Political Violence in Nicaragua, 1961-1993."
Salvador Martí Puig
DESPITE THE MULTIPLE ACCORDS SIGNED BY THE CENTRAL AMERICAN PRESIDENTS AND by Nicaraguan Resistance (RN) and Sandinista government commissions, the RN remained intact inside Nicaragua's territory until March 23, 1990, after the results of the 1990 elections and even after Violeta Chamorro's advisory group signed the Executive Branch Transition Protocol with an FSLN delegation.
An effective and definitive cease-fire was only achieved with the Toncontín Accord, signed by representatives of the RN and the new government, witnessed by Cardinal Miguel Obando. In it the contras pledged to disarm their troops before April 20, 1990—just before the change of government—and to move to previously designated security zones overseen by international organizations. The new government promised to protect the victims of the conflict and guarantee the rehabilitation and social readaptation of the demobilized.
New accords and declarations were signed by both sides in the following months: on April 25 the "Effective and Definitive Cease-Fire Accord between the Government of the Republic of Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan Resistance," on May 4 the "Declaration of Managua" and on May 30 both the "Managua Protocol on Disarmament" and the "Accord for the Establishment of Development Poles." The objective of these accords was to define the security conditions and location for the disarmed contra soldiers and, above all, to create instruments for their social and economic integration into "development poles."
Development Poles: The Solution? Or A Chimera on Paper?Previously designated by the government and the RN within an 8,000-square-kilometer expanse of zones situated fundamentally in the country's central area, the development poles were conceived of as a solution to the demands for land expressed by the soldiers to their field commanders. The "Accord for the Establishment of Development Poles" designated the zones and defined the poles as follows: "We understand development poles to be defined production units for the benefit of community members and the country that serve as a center for services and development of the adjacent region, through individual and/or collective projects. The development poles should have the following basic structures: municipal area, schools, warehouses, potable water, electricity, hospitals, roads, paths, residential housing areas, private property plots for subsistence farming and cattle, a communal area and a project area for the benefit of all community members." The accord established that "demobilized RN members and their families will have the right to benefit from the programs implemented in the development poles."
With that, the RN soldiers began to move toward the new security zones preparatory to demobilization. The number of demobilized and their families surpassed all predictions and questions arose about the government's ability to address the land and financing demands of them all. Another question: would the ex-contras have to share the limited resources with the other side, also affected by the military conflict, those demobilizing from the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) and Ministry of the Interior (MINT) as well as the repatriating refugees and internally displaced?
Other uncertainties had to do with the new government's political will and ability to fulfill the signed accords, taking into account the limited flow of economic aid to cover the costs promised by the US government before the elections. The situation was complicated even more by the fact that peasants, squatters, cooperatives and even some state enterprises were already in the zones where the government had designated the poles.
A document published by the Civic Association of the Nicaraguan Resistance (ACRN), noted that in a year and a half of "peace," as of 1991, only a total of 15,000 manzanas of land on some 75 farms located in various municipalities of Chontales, Boaco, Matagalpa and Jinotega had been distributed to its members, which was only 20% of their total land demand.
This confirmed the thesis that the development poles only existed on paper, which then initiated a complex and conflictive process of divergences between the RN demobilized and the government, between the RN demobilized and the EPS demobilized, and between cooperative members and demobilized from both armies. A new chapter of social unrest was opened in Nicaragua's rural zones.
The Chamorro government's failure to fulfill the signed accords was soon demonstrated. The government had promised to construct four development poles immediately—in El Almendro, Río Blanco, Yolaina and the Río Coco—but Agrarian Reform Institute officials were soon declaring that "reality showed us that we were wrong." And sure enough, when the RN ex-combatants got to the poles they saw that the promises—construction of schools, health centers, water supplies—were not being fulfilled. Deceived, they abandoned the poles and sought out their families, their friends, their place of birth. They returned to the mountains to look for a small plot of land to work or to hire themselves out on other farms.
The social explosion in the rural areas happened soon after the potential residents of these development poles saw that they were no more than a chimera. Their discontent was channeled into two different kinds of response. One was the emergence of what were soon called recontras—ex-RN members who rearmed—which was followed, in a cause-effect dynamic, by the recompas—ex-EPS and MINT members who rearmed. The other response was that the diverse peasant collectives that had opposed each other before during the war began to realize that they shared the same interests and aggravations.
The Depth of the Problem Was Never MeasuredA meeting took place between the government, the RN, the EPS and delegates from various international organizations in mid-July 1990 to evaluate the demobilization accords. Conclusion: the withdrawal of RN troops from their former zones had been fulfilled and verified, but a number of tasks were unfinished: collecting weapons, guaranteeing security for former RN members, social reinsertion in the development poles and effecting the promised state aid. It was certified that 10,493 ex-combatants had received land plots covering a total of 370,912 manzanas. However, 53% of the demobilized still had no access to land. The evaluation demonstrated that the reinsertion process did not have a solid base and that the attempt to pacify the rural zones through disarmament, cooptation of contra leaders and the adjudication of land without a strategy linked to the rest of the new government's economic policies was doomed to fail.
The negative impact of those other economic policies—which pre-supposed an acute recession, increased unemployment, a drop in credit and a reduction of currency in circulation—totally undercut the accords which tried to integrate combatants from both sides into civilian life.
Later studies concluded that the government never perceived the depth of the problems derived from the war as a whole. Numbers illustrate its size: 600,000 people were directly affected by the military conflict and needed emergency help. Of these, 71,000 were refugees in Costa Rica and Honduras who chose repatriation between 1986 and 1993; 22,413 were RN demobilized with their 58,721 family members; 72,000 were EPS demobilized—of the 96,000 army members before the change in government—and 5,100 were MINT demobilized, as well as 354,000 internally displaced, the majority from the regions in the center of the country that had been war zones.
Other studies revealed that there were as many demobilized as there were formally employed Nicaraguans. In 1991, the veterans from both sides equaled the total number of workers in the three sectors of the economy: agriculture, industry and services.
The State's Absence Promoted the RecontrasAt the same time that the Chamorro government was promoting the demobilization of a large part of the EPS and the entire RN, it opted for the almost total disappearance of state institutions from what had been the war zones. As was to be expected, the state's retreat created a power gap which meant the postwar problems were not being dealt with. When I told colleagues I was traveling to the rural areas, they told me repeatedly, "Be careful because the state only goes as far as Sébaco. Beyond that it's no man's land." And that was basically true, even just a short time after Chamorro took office. When Cardinal Obando was asked in an interview if he thought that Violeta Chamorro had forgotten about the demobilized contras, Obando responded: "I don't think she has forgotten. But she is not very concerned."
Armed conflicts began in mid-1990 and fed a spiral of violence. In October 1990, 200 ex-contras took over the town of Waslala, initiating what would soon be called the recontras. On November 16 and 17 of that year, another group of recontras took over the Jalapa police station. Over the following three years 700 armed actions cost more than 1,000 lives.
Mid-level RN leaders, pressured by their bases, took up arms against the government to demand the fulfillment of promises. The first recontra formation with a formalized organization was the National Salvation Democratic Front (FDSN), represented by a High Command of eleven contra ex-combatants who had been mid-level leaders during the war. Of the other groups created later, the 3-80 Northern Front became the most important. The armed activity quickly atomized and evolved from a military-political reality into a bandit phenomenon.
A Vicious Circle Of MisunderstandingsAs was to be expected, the rearming of the ex-contras put cooperative members—mostly Sandinistas—on alert, together with demobilized EPS and MINT members in various rural zones. They took up arms again as a protection mechanism, thus giving birth to the recompas. At first the recompas organized around the National Self-Defense Movement (MADN). Later other groups emerged, such as the Workers and Peasants Revolutionary Front (FROC) and the Andrés Castro United Front (FUAC), which had a presence in Nueva Segovia and the North Atlantic, respectively.
In its 1992 mid-year report, the army estimated that, between recontras and recompas, the rearmed totaled 21,905 men. They had access to 13,980 automatic weapons, as well as machine guns, mines and even anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons. All of this material had been stored away before the "official disarmament" supervised by the OAS and the UN through CIAV and ONUCA. The rearmed men with whom I spoke in La Patriota, Matiguás, confirmed that when they demobilized they had only handed in their old weapons. "We gave them the useless guns, we just put on a show." Places that had been military zones in the 1980s quickly returned to "the peacetime war" of the 1990s. Matiguás, Pantasma, Waslala, Wasaká, San Juan de Limay, Wiwilí, El Cuá, Yalí, El Ayote, Quilalí, El Jícaro, La Concordia, La Trinidad, Yolaina, Río Blanco and other areas once again experienced violence.
Daily reality formed a vicious circle of misunderstandings. Mutual accusations of failure to fulfill agreements between the government and the rearmed groups. Settling of accounts between demobilized from the same side or opposing sides. Interminable negotiations. New "rearmings" emerged from the negotiations as a strategy to pressure the government and obtain benefits. And new "disarmings" and accords also emerged from the negotiations, as a government strategy to slow down violence in the rural areas.
This path led to expanding anomalous violence in rural areas. The conflicts, based in previous years on a political discourse and symbolism, were diluted into a residual series of actions that had little to do with political or ideological positions. The political-military figures who had been characterized by their solidity began to break down; they made temporary alliances between bands that had been enemies, joining to fight state institutions around common daily interests not at all related to ideology or rhetoric. Armed bands made up of ex-contras and ex-Sandinistas together were thus born, and were ingeniously given the popular name revueltos, "the scrambled ones."
A War Without RanksWithin a short time the rearmed were characterized by the adoption of practices and styles similar to banditry, where the authors of violent crimes had become more concerned with surviving or settling personal differences than with either fighting against communism or creating the new man. The "war taxes"—extortion, ransom, cattle or coffee theft—did not go to finance the war. They had more prosaic objectives: to allow some increasingly desperate "guerrillas," maladapted and abandoned, to eat some days. The rearmed were mostly impoverished peasants and adolescents who had not even taken part in the war during the 1980s. With rural backgrounds and no economic future, they reflected the social decomposition that "peace" had brought to broad zones in the country's central area.
They invaded farms, took over cooperatives, kidnapped and killed peasants and producers. They worked in zones where, according to a 1991 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report, over half of the population lived in conditions of extreme poverty. For five years, the result of armed activity in these places was the violent death of one person every two days. In these territories, any social or economic activity was fraught with insecurity.
Any loyalty or reference to any institutional authority disappeared, creating a power gap that was often filled by sinister "gentlemen of war" who maintained dominion based on terror in certain communities. The codes of slogans and directives imposed by both the EPS and the RN in the 1980s disappeared and in their place appeared a type of violence that clouded the borders between social, political and economic. It was a bastard conflict, without laurels, anomalous and confusing. It was based on survival, social decomposition and a lack of perspective and hope among those who, for a whole decade, had been mobilized and armed by the elites—generals, colonels, politicians and ministers—who had initiated the peace process among themselves in 1987 with Esquipulas II. For those on the bottom, the peace process only prolonged the arrival of a future of abandonment, subordination and growing inequalities. Its result, peace, tasted of deep frustration.
Paradoxically, the frustration led to the meeting of rural collectives from the country's interior with broad urban sectors from the Pacific who also found no place under the sun in "the new Nicaragua." This continues to be a surprising conclusion to the war, since, in essence, it was the urban and rural sectors which had confronted each other during the war. Some were defending their first and perhaps only opportunity to be protagonists in the development of a more just society that included them, and others reacting to the destruction of the world that sustained their existence before.
Awakening ConsciousnessThe elites in Managua and Miami who had mobilized these two sectors during the war clamored against violence and in favor of stability. They presented themselves as the deliverers of governability and of a progress whose goal is Nicaragua's insertion into the globalized economy, in opposition to the common people who, with demonstrations, armed bands, strikes and protests, represented barbarity and backwardness. Their discourse is identical to that of their predecessors of a century and a half before, who alienated themselves from the people with the chimera of an interoceanic canal and implemented liberal reforms that inserted Nicaragua into the international coffee market. The question must be asked: is the barbarity they are denouncing nothing more than extreme poverty and the awakening of the consciousness of those who suffer it?
Diverse expressions offering reasons for optimism were also emerging in that postwar period as a result of that consciousness. The creative coincidences among peasants who had been RN collaborators, peasant and other producers linked to UNAG and Sandinista sympathizers in cooperatives stand out in particular.
In many rural communities that had previously been battered by the war, these groupings—made up of people who had previously been enemies—began to reconstruct their communities based on the perception that they had much more in common with each other than they did with those who had been commanding them from Managua or Miami. On this basis, and starting with daily problems like the reconstruction of basic consumption marketing routes for the community, the organization of baseball leagues, or the opening of community centers, the possibility of repairing the peasant community began to be reality.
Reconciliation from Below
A shower of declarations and commentaries from the protagonists of this reconciliation stressed from the outset the commonalities between the bases of both bands and the divergences with some of their ex-leaders. Those leaders, said former RN commando Carlos García, president of the Foundation of ex-Combatants of War, in 1990, "convinced us that they [the Sandinistas] were communists and taught them that we were counterrevolutionaries, and neither was true." The foundation includes members from the EPS, MINT and the RN.
"We have to be honest," said UNAG president Daniel Núñez the same year. "It wasn't always understood that the counterrevolution had built a social base in the rural areas. The RN people I spoke with are peasants, and I even found producers who had been friends of mine in the 1960s. Now they don't have money, clothes or shoes and only eat once a day. In the midst of all this, it has often been the same cooperative members, so many times victims of contra actions, who have been sharing with them the little they have."
"Ten years of war were more than enough," said former contra leader Franklin, in 1991. "Now we have to understand each other and begin to produce. One important thing must be stated: for the first time in Nicaragua's history, the sectors who opposed each other have stayed and both have the right to live in the country. We have to understand each other."
And finally, a member of a self-defense cooperative outside of Condega, said in 1992: "Before I didn't dare cross the river. The contras could attack you beyond the Cantagallo hill. I never went to nearby communities. They looked at us strangely. Now it's different. Jealousies between us are disappearing. We need each other to make our small plots of land produce."
Dynamics that joined people peacefully and creatively arose on all sides between the two formerly antagonistic bands. A reconciliation from below crystallized in opposition to the reconciliation from above, which redefined the pacts between the elites, starting with Esquipulas II in 1987 and continuing with the 1990 elections. The redefinition had to face many obstacles, among them the violence generated by capitalism's excluding and polarizing measures and promoted by those reconciled and redefined elites.
Many Thousands Are Not ResignedThe Sandinista revolution gave social visibility to thousands and thousands of Nicaraguans for the first time in national history and in their personal histories. For a decade, the mobilization of these new social actors—many times in a dependent form or channeled in favor of or against the revolution—helped increase the feeling of political effectiveness, of peoples' confidence in organization and in the advantages derived from working and pressuring together.
Many Nicaraguans learned a new attitude about reality. "Before the revolution I couldn't open my mouth. I was afraid, terrified of speaking in public, but not now. Now I defend myself," comments a worker from a state enterprise later privatized in favor of the workers.
And a grandmother from the rural Venecia settlement in Condega comments, "When the National Guard was in power, those who raised their voices were dead. They didn't want anyone to talk. Now this has changed. It came with a high cost. They killed my husband and a son in the war. But we learned how to get angry, how to talk, and how to say no!"
It is precisely the perspective reflected in these testimonies that has introduced a key variable in Nicaragua's political life. The mobilizing and combative political culture of the revolutionary period and its subsequent reaction—also mobilizing and combative—had such influence on the imaginations of so many social collectives, despite the limitations and errors, that these same collectives will not now passively resign themselves to the neoliberal attacks.
Its Not Enough to Disarm ThemThe processes of institutional opening, democratization and modernization that have taken place in the postwar period are notable chiaroscuros. Speeches in favor of free trade and commercial deregulation coexist with the maintenance of corporative and monopolistic practices and clientelistic styles. The rhetoric of state reform and modernization coexists with the manipulation of government budgets to feed political loyalties. Having relatives or knowing someone in government, having friends with money or being from a good family still constitute the most important investment for the future in Nicaragua's public and private sphere, despite the abstract presence of individual rights in the laws and in the Constitution—on which democracy bases its legitimacy. And although multiple centers and organizations promote "modern" ideologies that exalt citizens' values, representative democracy or civic participation, there persists in daily life a reproduction of clientelist patterns and dynamics of solidarity based primarily on income, family, friendship or skin color.
It is hard to demonstrate how democratic-representative institutions improve the lives of the majorities. And it is this reductionism of democracy that puts in question the electoral processes and the agenda discussed in them. The question is based on reality: impunity, public corruption, administrative opacity and subordination of the judicial branch to the executive are perpetuated between elections.
Democratization is an extremely difficult task if it is not accompanied by reduction of the profound economic and cultural fractures that today are cracking Latin American countries, Nicaragua among them. Democracy is a regime of integration around shared values and attitudes, but political consensus building is a chimera when the market marginalizes, the culture discriminates and the state abandons.
Nicaragua's positive evolution will depend on the ability of popular forces to propose better development strategies compatible with growth, democracy and equity, and to create organized forms of collective action oriented to the direct or indirect exercise of power. The future political panorama will depend on the effectiveness of the popular movement to find formulas for greater social justice and representativity. This depends on the ability to struggle, but also on creativity and imagination.
Imagination and creativity will be needed to break the concentric circles of violence that have filled Nicaragua's daily geography. It is not enough to disarm the rearmed. Doors must be opened for them to a society that offers opportunities, attention and humanism. Because exclusion, hunger, lack of hope and contempt are also violence.