Passionate Memories From Times of Solidarity
As the Nicaraguan revolution celebrates its 25th anniversary, it is a fifting time to recall the solidarity, heroism and generosity of non-Nicaraguans who helped make July 19 possible. These stories have positive and negative sides, but we owe it to those who survived and those who are no longer with us to tell it as it was.
Much has been written about the heroic feats of the young Nicaraguans who brought down the Somoza dictatorship, but relatively little has been said about the heroism of thousands of anonymous men and women from many other countries whose diverse acts of solidarity contributed to the cause during that era. The following are some of my personal memories of such solidarity, some of which have a darker side that must also be mentioned. Reviving the memory of some of the people I was privileged to know—including the dead—is a way of paying them the tribute they deserve.
In Panama: The house in ChanisOne of the most vigorous and active Nicaraguan solidarity committees was the one organized in Panama. The committee’s president was Rogelio Sinán, one of the greatest poets in Panamanian history. The many other people involved included Carlos Wong, Esther María Osses, journalist Carlos Núñez, economist Juan Jované and his wife Pilar González, Bertilda Jurado Noriega and her mother Gilma Noriega, don Crescencio (Chencho)—a taxi driver whose house was the preferred place for lodging the most important guerrilla fighters, sister and brother Gloria and Rogelio Rosas, and the Argentine Stella Calloni. Only the Mexican and Costa Rican committees were bigger.
Between 1977 and 1979 thousands of Sandinistas of all tendencies passed through Panama. Each tendency had dozens of safe houses that were either rented or put at their disposal by Panamanians of all social classes. From April to May 1979, over a thousand combatants were lodged in these houses, awaiting the right moment to make their way to Costa Rica and then on to the different fronts of the insurrectionary war in Nicaragua.
The main house at the disposal of the Prolonged Popular War (GPP) tendency was located in the middle-class neighborhood of Chanis on the outskirts of Panama City. Many Sandinista leaders passed through that house, including: Tomás Borge (who went under the pseudonym Mario); Henry Ruiz (Modesto); Jacinto Suárez (Mauro Acosta); Víctor Moreno (René) and his brother Gustavo; Matilde Rocha (Marcela) and Carlos García (Eduardo) with their two children; Sergio Buitrago (Rodrigo, also known as Pájaro Machalá because of the poor taste of the jokes he used to tell); Alfredo Alaniz (Dionisio); Enrique Morales (Julio); Horacio Rocha; Doris Tijerino; Gioconda Belli and Omar Cabezas (Juan José). Daniel Núñez (alias Danilo) was the head of both the Exterior Commission and the house. At one point 60 guerrilla fighters from the Heberto column stayed in the house together before setting off to fight on the Southern Front. They stayed for three days—and unsurprisingly given the excessive crowding—left the house’s two bathrooms completely blocked up.
A young Panamanian woman, Carmen Allen, did the cooking while the lodgers took care of cleaning the enormous dwelling. Carmen became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who—at the suggestion of Modesto and Danilo—was christened Nelson in honor of the much-loved peasant guerrilla fighter Nelson Suárez (alias Evelio), who had been killed in 1977. Everyone who stayed in the house for any length of time was assigned a monthly allowance of US$30 to finance their transportation and allow them to buy objects of personal use.
Two networks operated there. The first was the security network, in charge of obtaining arms, munitions, money and houses to temporarily lodge guerrilla fighters on their way back from training in Cuba, and the second was the propaganda and relations network. The security network rigorously applied the compartmentalization procedure, so that each cell was unaware of what the other was doing, but in practice many of the Panamanians that had contact with the public structure were also involved in clandestine work.
Ramona: Brave, bold… and wrongedOne Panamanian woman who worked with the Sandinistas was Ramona, a lovely lady who was the mother of three daughters, two of them adolescents. She had been successful and enjoyed a good standard of living, but her indigenous roots—her mother was from an indigenous town near San Antonio, Texas—and her personal experience of oppression made her an enthusiastic Sandinista activist.
In December 1977, she left her daughters in the care of female friends and went to the United States, where she bought a load of arms, purchased what gringos call an “RV” (recreational vehicle) and hid her secret cargo under a false floor. She then set off from California, crossing Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, where murderous soldiers were guarding all of the highways. On at least six occasions they were on the point of discovering the bold mission being carried out all alone by that brave woman. She finally arrived in a small town in Las Segovias, Nicaragua, very close to the Honduran border, where a handful of guerrilla fighters received the weapons. Later, she would return to the United States every two or three months to get hold of passports of any nationality that would help Sandinistas circulate freely.
Her house in Panama became a special place. She reserved her guest room for guerrilla fighters who were either sick or needed a safer place to hide out for a few days. Modesto, Mario and Juan José were among those who spent some time there. It was on the piano where she occasionally played something by Chopin or Mozart that Carlos Mejía Godoy tested out his tribute to Carlos Fonseca and the FSLN Anthem, which was later practiced by the out-of-tune voices of María Isabel Aramburu, Ramiro Contreras, Róger, Chuchú Martínez and other musically disoriented souls. Then suddenly one day Ramona decided that she no longer wanted anyone to stay at her house, with the exception of Danilo and Róger. Many months later, after the triumph of the revolution, Ramona told Róger the reason behind her sudden decision: one of her “guests” had tried to abuse her two older daughters, the domestic worker and Ramona herself.
Volunteers from all over the worldAn effort was made to disseminate the Sandinista struggle in the public sphere through a magazine run by Eduardo, which came out three times under three different names: first as Presencia Sandinista, following the example of the magazine published in Costa Rica by the poet Gioconda Belli; then as Gaceta Sandinista, which was its historical name; and finally as Unidad Sandinista, because that edition came out after March 7, 1979, when the three tendencies celebrated their reunification in Havana. Unidad Sandinista published a long interview with Modesto that Eduardo had done, in which the head of the GPP insisted that he had not forgotten one of the lessons of Sandino’s struggle: when the General decided to negotiate, he was assassinated.
Eduardo and Róger also ran a public office opened by the FSLN on one of Panama City’s main streets. The aim was to register volunteers from all over the world who had decided to join the fight against Somoza. Hundreds of “cheles” [a Nicaraguan word for white foreigners] passed through that office and were transferred to the guerrilla camps in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, almost as soon as they had written down their name and passport number. From there they were sent on to the Southern Front. That same office received around 50 Ecuadorians, most of them doctors and nurses, who also joined several fronts of the war against Somoza and saved dozens of young men and women who were injured in combat.
The beloved Marcela:The compañera in the Exterior Commission most beloved by all Sandinistas was Marcela. She had had to leave the country with her husband Eduardo and their small children in September 1978, when the whole FSLN structure in Carazo was exposed to the persecution of the Nicaraguan National Guard as a result of the FSLN’s division.
Affectionate, generous… and frustrated
Marcela did everything in the Chanis house, but her most important mission was to listen to and comfort fighters who were staying there. One night during Easter Week of 1979, when loneliness and nostalgia were testing people’s resolve, she told a secret that had been eating her up for months. A few months after arriving in Panama in October 1978, she had been asked to look after a Sandinista leader who was going to be operated on. Marcela had been a nurse and was the most suitable person to carry out the mission. The compañero was one of over 100 prisoners freed from Somoza’s jails by the commando group that had taken the National Palace. The house in Chanis had not been rented yet, so the center of operations was located in a three-room apartment on the first floor of a building in San Francisco, one of Panama City’s most traditional neighborhoods.
Marcela asked Róger and Eduardo to help her with the 24-hour attention they had to give the sick man. Every half an hour or so the person on duty had to use latex gloves to change the ice compresses placed on the man’s face to reduce the inflammation. Marcela stayed up through the early hours of the morning and Róger and Eduardo relieved her during the day and part of the night. On the third day the doctor released the compañero and a few days later he was transferred to the new house in Chanis.
While the sick man was being cared for, Marcela was withdrawn and sometimes in a bad mood. Róger attributed this to tiredness and the stress involved in caring for the patient. But in reality she was sad, frustrated, disillusioned, depressed and inwardly furious. She thought that the surgery had been to cure some problem, but had found out that it was really plastic surgery. The compañero was over 50 and had requested the operation to lift up his drooping eyelids, which were giving him an oriental look... Marcela said she had told Modesto and that he had been furious, because nobody had told him what was really going on either. Worse still, the “patient” had attempted to exploit Marcela’s tenderness and selflessness by trying to molest her. The slap with which she brought her would-be molester up short was very painful indeed! Marcela and Róger never knew how much the operation had cost, but they could never feel the same respect for their vain compañero. Now, every time they see Tomás Borge’s face they are reminded of those days in Panama.
Doña Velia Peralta’s three sonsAt the end of the sixties, Nicaragua was rocked by one of the many brutal crimes committed by Somoza’s National Guard. On April 5, 1968, David Tejada, who had graduated as a lieutenant from Somoza’s military academy and then joined the FSLN, was horrifically tortured then killed by Colonel Oscar Morales. It was even said that his never-recovered body had been thrown into the smoldering crater of the Santiago Volcano in Masaya. His brother René also went off to fight with the guerrilla movement and died in combat in the mountains of the country’s North Atlantic region seven years later. Omar Cabezas described René Tejada Peralta’s death in his book La Montaña es algo más que una inmensa estepa verde [published in English as Fire from the Mountain: The making of a Sandinista].
The Tejada brothers’ mother was Velia Peralta. David and René were her oldest children from her first marriage, but she also had two younger children—Ana and Erving—from other relationships. She raised all of her children on her own. When the situation in Nicaragua became more difficult and Peralta’s youngest child Erving Vargas was old enough either to be killed by the National Guard as a potential Sandinista or actually join the insurrection, doña Velia made a great sacrifice and got him out of the country and into Panama with the help of some Sandinista friends. She didn’t want to lose her only remaining son.
Erving was 18 when he arrived in Panama in 1977. By then the Torrijos government had initiated its aid to political refugees and Erving qualified for the benefits offered, including monthly support and registration in the state university. But like his brothers, Erving carried the seed of Sandinismo buried deep down inside him. He met other young men in a similar situation and started organizing them. Together they founded the Association of Nicaraguan Students in Panama, which at one point included over 50 under-25-year-olds, including his Panamanian girlfriend Noemí Cuevas and her sister Marielos.
Erving organized study circles on Marxism and Nicaraguan history and worked tirelessly to disseminate the Sandinista struggle among Panamanians. When the Sandinista Front organized its representation in Panama, he quickly got in touch. At the end of 1978, Róger was designated as the political head of the Association. Erving was enthusiastic and a great affinity immediately sprang up between them that soon developed into a solid friendship. Róger received instructions to form a militant cell out of the Association’s most outstanding young men, and each member received a pseudonym. Erving chose “Ernesto” in homage to Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Other members of the group included Alberto Leal and the brothers Félix and Jairo Palacios and Oscar, Gerardo and Jesús Oviedo Mosquera.
With them and other members of the Association, Ernesto and Róger carefully planned the occupation of the OAS representation in Panama to mark the 45th anniversary of Sandino’s assassination. With military synchronization, Ernesto and another 10 students broke into the OAS building, where they stayed for 48 hours until they felt they had achieved the political objective of denouncing the situation in Nicaragua and the crimes of the Somoza dictatorship. The news appeared in all of the most prestigious Panamanian media and was even published in Nicaragua, according to some compañeros. The night the occupation came to an end, the youngsters held a party and paid tribute to Ernesto’s organizational and political capacity.
The death of the third sonErnesto wanted military training to go off and fight in Nicaragua and continually asked if he could be sent to the battlefront. When the military offensive was being prepared, Modesto decided to include him as one of the 60 members of a GPP column being sent to the Southern Front. One of the group, known by the pseudonym Heberto, was a tall, strapping, dark-skinned lad from León with excellent military training. Róger found out that he had been named head of the column and specifically entrusted Ernesto to him. After an intensive two weeks of training in northern Costa Rica, the column set off for Nicaragua in the second half of May. Two days after moving into the area around Cárdenas, Heberto was hit in the head by a National Guard sniper and Ernesto took charge of burying him.
Following the bloodiest stage of the war, Ernesto arrived in Managua with the guerrilla fighters from the Southern Front on July 20, 1979. But his passion for the army and his desire to vindicate the memory of his two brothers then encouraged him to pursue a military career. He obtained a house for his mother and dedicated his life to the army. Such were his merits that he was named head of artillery in 1983 and reached the rank of captain.
A year later the United States increased the intensity of the war against Nicaragua. It had managed to put together a real army led by mercenaries who were trained in Honduras by CIA officials and officers from the Argentine army. There were daily clashes in Matagalpa and Jinotega and the Sandinista army leadership ordered its main officers to the area. Ernesto went with them, under orders of subcomandante Cristóbal Vanegas, a veteran guerrilla fighter from the indigenous neighborhood of Monimbó in Masaya.
In August 1984, the army was carrying out one of many operations against contra groups in Mulukukú. As the military commanders were returning to their base in Matagalpa, the helicopter in which they were traveling either crashed or was shot down. Cristóbal Vanegas and Erving Vargas Peralta were among those on board and both were killed.
Doña Velia Peralta could hardly bear the pain of losing her third son. The night the coffin arrived at her house she cried in silence in a corner of the house that Erving had got for her in the Los Robles neighborhood. She spent the next 17 years grieving, and although she made it into the 21st century, she died at the age of 82 on Sunday January 28, 2001, after failing to recover from surgery. Doña Velia had always been a well-organized woman: she had already prepared her own shroud and had left instruction to be buried the same day as she died.
Ecuador: The radio appeal It was June 1979. The world media were full of news from the Nicaraguan front, and in Ecuador the fighting was being followed with a keen passion. A handful of young clandestine militants there—led by Esperanza Martínez—were struggling against their own military dictatorship and working in solidarity with the Sandinista cause. They were organizing the collection of aid for the guerrilla fighters and had daubed the walls of the university and much of the center of Quito with anti-Somoza and anti-imperialist slogans.
Months earlier they had received a visit from Eduardo (Carlos García Castillo) and, encouraged by the results, had organized a national campaign to collect clothes, money and all kinds of other materials for the Sandinista combatants and the thousands of citizens affected by the National Guard’s merciless bombing raids. In Cuenca, Tulcán, Guayaquil, Quito, Machala and many other cities, massive collections were being made, and the FSLN’s Exterior Commission had sent Róger, a callow Nicaraguan youth with very un-Nicaraguan features, from Panama to talk about the Sandinista struggle and receive the aid offered by the Ecuadorian people.
At that time, Machala—the capital of the southern province of El Oro, located in the country’s most important banana enclave—was a small semi-rural city. Róger arrived on a Monday and had barely got off the rickety bus from Quito when he was met by a group of enthusiastic youngsters from the city who took him straight off to a radio station where an appeal in solidarity with the Nicaraguan struggle had been underway since six in the morning. The work plan also included visits to all of the primary and secondary schools, as each child had taken a small contribution to school that day and wanted to meet a real Sandinista.
The voice of an old lady:The radio station was packed with sacks, boxes and packages of provisions, clothes and even cooking utensils. After the long interview, Róger emerged from the dark room with ancient equipment that served as the station’s broadcasting studio to be met by a crowd of people waiting outside. He talked to each of them in turn and at one point when he was alone, an old lady came shuffling up to him guided by a child.
She must have been over eighty, and appeared to have a matching number of wrinkles etched into her face. Her voice, even weaker than normal because of the emotion of the moment, came out in a broken whisper. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you!” she mumbled, lifting her arms up to embrace that thickset lad with European features. “All of you have to keep on fighting! Don’t surrender! That evil man has no right to do what he’s doing!” she said. Róger thanked her in monosyllables, opening his eyes as wide as he could to keep the tears from overflowing.
“Look,” she continued, “I went to the company store on Saturday to get the fortnightly provisions for my children and grandchildren. They work in a hacienda, picking bananas. I know that over there in Nicaragua a lot of children don’t have anything to eat, so I’m bringing you the sugar and rice from the provisions. We’ll find a way of getting food for my grandchildren, because at least we’ve got ways of looking for it. I know it’s not much, but I want you to take it.” Róger couldn’t speak because of the emotion welling up inside him and he could no longer hold back the tears. He just leaned down to embrace the old lady’s wizened body again and mutter “thank you very much.” The woman took her grandchild’s hand, turned around and walked off. But she turned again at the doorway and, finding the strength from who knows where, shouted back “Don’t surrender!”
Guayasamín’s generosityBack in Panama, Danilo and Mauro Acosta had assigned Róger a special mission in Quito: he had to meet with a famous painter who was going to donate some of his pictures to finance the war against Somoza. They gave him a telephone number and a name: Oswaldo Guayasamín. Róger had never heard of him. After finishing his tour of the Ecuadorian provinces, Róger got in touch with Guayasamín, who invited him to his residence, a gigantic mansion in the suburbs of Quito. In other circumstances that meeting would never have taken place.
Guayasamín was extremely kind and understanding, ignoring his guest’s cultural ignorance. He asked Róger many questions about the battlefront and made a number of caustic remarks about Somoza and the Americans. Ten minutes later he handed Róger twenty lithographs of his best paintings, one by one. “You can sell them for $10,000 each, and use the money to buy arms and throw out that dictator,” he said. But in the event, there was no need to sell them for arms, because the Sandinista fighters entered triumphantly into Managua just a few weeks later. Róger turned the lithographs over to his superiors in Panama, and when they all traveled back to Nicaragua to assume their responsibilities in the revolutionary government, the lithographs were left in the custody of José Pasos Marciaq, a psychiatrist living in exile ever since his mentor, the Sandinista Ricardo Morales Avilés, was captured by the National Guard in 1971.
The generosity betrayedYears later, Pasos Marciaq was an important official in the FSLN’s Department of International Relations. One night in April 1987, when the war against the US mercenaries was at its fiercest, he invited Róger to his house in the cool area of Monte Tabor, 14 kilometers south of Managua, an elegant residence confiscated from a Somoza National Guard officer. The diplomat drew up to a wooded area, parked his Mercedes Benz—also confiscated from a National Guard officer—and walked into his house.
Róger, who got held up for a moment, walked in on his own, and as he entered, what he saw shocked and paralyzed him: there on the wall opposite the front door, was one of the lithographs Guayasamín had entrusted to him. He couldn’t believe it. He walked into the large living room in a trance, and there on the walls were another six of the pieces of art donated to buy arms for the struggle against Somoza. Pasos Marciaq walked in on him at that moment and, with a grin that ran from ear to ear, commented, “Aren’t they lovely? And they’re originals! They’re by the famous Ecuadorian painter, Oswaldo Guayasamín”. Róger was speechless. Anger welled up in his throat but he had to swallow it.
July 19 in Bolivia: Tears of joy and painWhen Róger arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, on July 19, 1979, nobody was waiting for him in the airport. Somewhat disconcerted, he asked the people at the paging desk to call Jaime Paz, his contact with the grassroots Bolivian organizations that wanted to donate to the Sandinista cause. The name was paged several times to no avail, but he quickly sensed a strange atmosphere. He felt he was being watched and detected three individuals who wouldn’t take their eyes of him and had all the characteristics of security agents.
Seconds after hearing the female voice announce for the third time, “Señor Jaime Paz, señor Jaime Paz, you are wanted at reception,” he realized his great mistake. His contact wasn’t Jaime! That was the name of a leader of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), one of those responsible for the resistance against the military government! No wonder he was being watched! He was supposed to be met by Eduardo Paz. He immediately ran to the counter and explained his mistake to the young lady, but he didn’t want to wait any longer and went in search of a taxi. Unfortunately a transport strike had started that very night and he had to wait for hours before being taken into the city by a private vehicle that was exploiting the situation and charging well over the odds.
The following morning he managed to get in touch with Eduardo, who laughed his head off when he heard what had happened at the airport. Just as they were walking past the big stairway at the entrance to the university in the streets of La Paz to meet with a famous Bolivian compañera, Róger caught sight of the newspapers being sold on a street stand and he couldn’t hold back a cry of joy: “We won! We won! Let’s get a paper!”
It was a copy of the Catholic Church tabloid Presencia, which carried a full-page picture of a column of guerrilla fighters being cheered by the people. “Sandinistas enter Managua,” ran the headline, followed by the subhead, “National Guard abandons uniforms in the streets.” He devoured all of the information in the paper, but had to contain his joy because they had arrived at their meeting. The compañera awaiting them was quite a legend in Bolivia—Loyola Guzmán, one of the few Bolivian women who participated in Che Guevara’s guerrilla activities in that country.
It was a long meeting, which mainly covered the Sandinistas and the endless gestures of international solidarity, but Róger couldn’t resist the temptation to ask Guzmán what had happened after so many years of repression since the murder of Che Guevara. She was quiet for a while, hiding the pain behind her glasses. Then she gave a hint of a smile and said, “Here we are, continuing with the struggle.” That night Róger slept at the house of Methodist minister Matías and his wife. They talked about Somoza’s flight, the dead, the living that were still suffering and how the Bolivian indigenous peoples were agonizing beneath the boot of the Bolivian oligarchy. It wasn’t until the following morning that Róger could vent so many conflicting emotions. Locked in the bathroom, he sobbed his heart out over the victory and over the dead that Rev. Matías had reminded him of.
With the Bolivian minersOn Friday July 21, Róger had a meeting scheduled with the Bolivian Workers’ Center, where leaders of the Democratic Popular Union were waiting to hand over a donation. No sooner had he arrived than he was shown into a conference room where over a dozen union and political leaders had gathered. They included former President Hernán Siles Suazo, Juan Lechón and Ramón Reyes. Don Hernán stood up and effusively greeted their Sandinista guest, congratulating him for the victory over the dictatorship and anticipating the start of a new era in Latin America.
Then a man of about 30 introduced himself as the secretary general of the mining union federation, but didn’t mention his name. He spoke briefly but forcefully, promising the militant solidarity of Bolivian workers with the Nicaraguan revolutionaries. Then he explained that the miners had decided to donate a day’s wages to the Sandinista struggle and handed over a check for $10,000. Ten thousand dollars! “The compañeros wanted it to be used to buy arms for the guerrilla fighters, but now you do whatever the Sandinistas want with it,” he concluded.
Marta’s and Carlos’ armsRóger returned to Panama and the house in Chanis on the night of July 24. But everything had changed and there was tension in the air because nobody wanted to be there. They all wanted to go back to Nicaragua, but Modesto had ordered no one to leave until an embassy had been organized. On July 27, Danilo brought two angel-faced youngsters to the house. Marta and Carlos were both 15 and had just arrived from Costa Rica, where they had been sent for medical attention on July 17.
In April, both had been the victims of two separate but identical accidents that changed their lives forever, Marta in the populous Managua neighborhood of Monseñor Lezcano and Carlos in León. They had lost their concentration when preparing contact bombs for the daily rounds of street fighting against Somoza’s National Guard: the gunpowder exploded and blew off their arms just above the elbow. Marcela took responsibility for looking after Marta and Julio for looking after Carlos. They had to help them with everything, from eating and getting dressed to accompanying them to the toilet. In the midst of such pain, the tenderness with which Marcela and Julio cared for those two youngsters—whose real names were Ofilio Delgadillo and Alma Nubia Baltodano Marcenaro—was a true hymn to love and affection.
Meanwhile, Danilo was organizing those compañeros who could go back to Nicaragua, and wanted to take advantage of the chance to send back much of the aid collected. At the beginning of August, a ship hired with the wages donated by the Bolivian miners set off from Panama for the Nicaraguan port of Corinto loaded with provisions, clothes and many other items donated by the Panamanian and Ecuadorian people. A handful of the Nicaraguans who had been exiled in Panama were also on board.
The soldier poet: Chuchú MartínezPanama was one of the main refuges for politically persecuted Nicaraguans from about 1975 onwards. General Omar Torrijos played a crucial role in the triumph of the Sandinista revolution and his government earmarked a special budget to prepare shelters for entire Nicaraguan families. Christened “the dovecotes” by the refugees and their benefactors, the Panamanian government provided each house with beds, tables, stoves and food, as well as assigning a government official to attend to the refugees’ other needs on a daily basis, including their psychological requirements. These buildings housed many people, including the teacher Francisco Guzmán; Ricardo Abud; Yasmina Martínez and her children; Roberto Leal, his wife and their children; and Iván Vanegas—accurately dubbed “The Petulant One.”
Two of the government-assigned officials in daily contact with the Nicaraguan refugees—and for whom the Nicas developed a deep affection—were Baltasar Aispurúa, Panama’s first ambassador to Managua during the Sandinista government, and Sergeant José de Jesús Martínez, whom everyone knew as Chuchú. It was impossible not to love and respect Chuchú. Argentine journalist Stella Calloni, who lived in Panama from 1977 to 1979, recalls that “his ‘Nica face’, as he put it, made him boast of an indigenous past that filled him with pride, but he fabricated both that past and much of the rest of his life. He was dark and luminous at the same time. Nobody else has the same vision as Chuchú. He created the miracle of making himself a kaleidoscope into which one could look, see one’s own image, separate oneself and play among the stars or the fires of hell.” He had supposedly studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, as well as in Madrid, Munich, New York, Mexico and other countries. But above all, he learned from his experiences alongside General Omar Torrijos, becoming his righthand man from the moment he entered the Panamanian National Guard.
Chuchú was a mathematician, pilot, poet, philosopher, man of letters and soldier; but above all he was a loyal friend who wouldn’t hide his political opinions, even when he knew they might upset top-ranking FSLN leaders. His work was vital for the guerrilla rearguard, due not only to his role as skills in getting weapons, transferring guerrilla fighters, delivering large amounts of money and making daring flights to airdrop munitions and food supplies to guerrilla camps in the Nicaraguan mountains.
Chuchú used to say that when he felt depressed, hungry or worried, he would head for the kitchen of one of the “dovecotes”— there were over 15 by June 1979—where someone was inevitably cooking one of his favorite delicacies, like gallopinto, indio viejo or pinolillo, or where he might just come across a nacatamal in the fridge. He loved Nicaraguan food so much that when he accompanied his great friend Graham Green to what was now “free Nicaragua,” he suggested that Tomás Borge take them to eat at the popular diners in Managua’s Roberto Huembes market, which had already acquired deserved fame by 1980.
Chuchú and Modesto: A deep friendshipChuchú was born in the Nicaraguan town of Diriamba, but had lived in Panama since he was a boy. Beyond just his Nicaraguan origins, however, Chuchú fell in love with the Sandinista struggle at the beginning of 1975, when he met Eduardo Contreras, the famous Comandante Cero who led the successful occupation of Chema Castillo’s Managua residence in December 1974. General Torrijos and Chuchú cried when Contreras died in 1976, just a few months after they had met him, and from then on Chuchú was totally committed to the Sandinista revolution.
A year and a half later, Chuchú, the soldier poet, took his light aircraft to Costa Rica to pick up Modesto and take him to a meeting with Torrijos. After that, the two of them—or rather the three of them—became like blood brothers. Chuchú said that if he had to give Modesto a name and an adjective he would call him “Exemplary Revolutionary,” an idea taken from one of Che Guevara’s maxims that the only way of teaching is by example. “And Modesto is a master of that,” he said.
Through Chuchú, Modesto’s relation with Torrijos came to be almost the latter’s only link with the Sandinistas. In fact, when Daniel Ortega arrived in Panama in 1978, the General shunted him off to meet with Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega, causing Ortega to ask Chuchú how it was possible that Torrijos could talk to Modesto and not to him. In his book, Mi General Torrijos, written in 1987, Chuchú recounts that when he came out of his meeting with Noriega, Daniel Ortega was delighted with the Colonel. “He talked of him with an enthusiasm and affection I expect they still have for each other today.” The Ortega brothers later managed to penetrate as far as General Torrijos himself, particularly Humberto, and even transcended Modesto’s relations with him.
Chuchú always felt more politically identified with the GPP, so much so that he risked his own life for that tendency during many clandestine missions. Although he also knew and was friends with Sergio Ramírez, Ernesto Cardenal, Carlos Mejía Godoy, Lenín Cerna, Dora María Téllez, Edgard Lang, Javier Carrión, Omar Cabezas and many others, it was his friendship with Modesto that really lasted. Chuchú also loved another Sandinista like a brother: Germán Pomares, alias El Danto. It was Chuchú who went to Honduras to free him when he was caught by the Honduran army, which threatened to hand him over to Somoza. General Torrijos himself negotiated Pomares’ release as a personal favor from the head of the Honduran army and sent his friend, Sergeant Martínez, to guarantee that he was handed over. Pomares died in combat on May 24, 1979.
An old plane in a fierce stormIt was surely the death of his friend, El Danto, that pushed Chuchú into a spectacular action a few days later. The three FSLN tendencies had reunited a few months earlier and decided to launch a final offensive against the Somoza dictatorship. At the beginning of the year, Modesto had ordered the purchase of an old four-motor plane (complete with very noisy propellers) and gave thousands of dollars to Marcela and Róger to close the deal. With the express authorization of General Torrijos, the plane provided arms, munitions and supplies to guerrilla columns operating in the north Atlantic region, Matagalpa, Estelí and even Managua.
Modesto wanted to use the same plane to return to Nicaragua and his Pablo Úbeda column so he could make his own contribution to what was shaping up to be the final battle. He gathered together 75 guerrilla fighters (including a number of Panamanians), 50 machine guns, new rifles and an enormous amount of ammunition. He then asked his friend Chuchú to fly the plane. They set off from the David military base in Chiriquí on Panama’s border with Costa Rica at dawn on May 29. The sky was quite clear.
Two hours later they were flying over Nicaragua’s north Caribbean coast region, but the weather had changed dramatically. There was a storm and tensions were running high among the guerrilla fighters packed into the plane. Chuchú flew the plane around, attempting to discover some space where he could put the plane down, but couldn’t find anywhere suitable. Modesto was now at his side. Chuchú went round again, but still couldn’t find anywhere to land. “I can’t land in these conditions,” he shouted to Modesto through the infernal din of the motors of that flying stove. “I don’t mind if we can’t take off again, because I’ll stay with you, but I can’t even get down!” he explained, but Modesto was stubborn and barked at him to take the plane down. Chuchú almost lost his composure: “On land, my comandante, you give the orders, but up here I give the orders. And we’re not going to land!” Modesto didn’t know how to reply. In the end they went back to Panama and landed at the same base from which they had set out. They later told Róger what had happened and Chuchú y Modesto both laughed at the orders and counter-orders they had given. If anything, it only strengthened their friendship.
Sergeant Martínez never got over the assassination of his General on July 31, 1981, and never recovered his joyful demeanor. It was even worse to be forced to witness impotently the pulverization of Torrijos’ work by Noriega and the rich people who had taken over the Democratic Revolutionary Party. But the pain became unbearable after the Yankee invasion in December 1989. Chuchú Martínez died of a heart attack on January 27, 1991, before he had celebrated his 62nd birthday. One of his many Nicaraguan friends, Carlos Mejía Godoy, paid tribute to him in a song whose humorous chorus is charged with the pain of loss: Se murió Chuchú Martínez / Chuchú Martínez murió / que Dios lo haya perdonado, porque nosotros, no [Chuchú Martínez has died / Chuchú Martínez is dead / Let’s hope God has forgiven him for it / Because we haven’t].
Montaña: The embassy driverFrom November to December 1978, Carlos Mejía Godoy and his group Los de Palacagüina toured various Panamanian cities, culminating in a vibrant concert at the gymnasium of the Jesuit-run Javier high school. Carlos and his group—Silvio Linarte, Enrique Duarte and Humberto Quintanilla—improvised rehearsals in the houses of Marisabel Aramburu, Rogelio and Lidia, and Gloria Rosas, with their respective adolescent daughters as backing singers.
Danilo assigned Róger to help Carlos organize that tour, and chose Pedro Montañez, a pure Panamanian, to drive the vehicle. Pedro was 28 and very, very fat. With his habitual good humor and playing on his surname, Carlos dubbed him Montaña [literally “mountain”], much to Pedro’s delight. Montaña was tireless and never in a bad mood. Like all good Panamanians, he sang whenever things got tense and loved to make fun of everything. Róger only saw him sad once: when they were on the road to Penonomé and he couldn’t avoid mortally injuring a stray dog. Montaña stopped the vehicle and ran to help the dying animal, but there was nothing he could do. When they set off again, Pedro was silently crying.
When the Sandinista government took power in 1979, Montaña was hired as the official driver at the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama, earning a modest salary of $250, which just about enabled him to maintain his four children. But even so he always managed to save enough to spend November and December in Nicaragua, traveling in one of the rickety Tica Bus coaches, either alone or with his oldest son. But he didn’t go as a tourist.
Sometimes he would visit Róger or Carlos, but only if it didn’t interfere with his main objective: to work with the volunteer coffee-picking brigades on the Matagalpan haciendas. He still has a traditional Masayan-made multi-colored rope wallhanging as the centerpiece in his living room. It is his only reminder of the time he spent working for the Embassy.
The rebellious ChinoMontaña got involved with the Sandinistas because of his friendship with El Chino [Chinaman], who, more than a friend, he considered his political mentor. Evaristo Vásquez, El Chino, was dark-skinned, tall and stocky, with slightly protruding teeth, and talked with a Spanish-style lisped “z”. When Colonels Omar Torrijos and Boris Martínez carried out their coup d’état on October 11, 1968, El Chino had protested in the streets along with other young Panamanians. In January 1969, when Martínez ordered the massacre of the students who were still protesting, El Chino decided to take up arms with the leftist Revolutionary Student Front (FER-29).
A few days later, Colonel Torrijos got rid of Martínez, putting him on a plane and sending him into exile in Miami, never to return. Weeks later, with all of the power concentrated in his hands, Torrijos neutralized the guerrilla concentration and imprisoned most of its members—including El Chino. Lengthy conversations followed and the young men were finally set free.
El Chino and his six children:In time, Evaristo and several of his friends joined the Torrijos forces, which was how he came to be friends with Chuchú Martínez, through whom he also met up with Modesto. El Chino won the absolute confidence and affection of all Sandinistas who knew him, particularly Modesto. With guile and boldness, he even built up a network of collaborators among the US Marines stationed in the military bases installed by the United States along the Panama Canal. With the help of other Panamanian compañeros and the Nicaraguans René and Danilo, hundreds of new rifles, ammunition and supplies were removed from the bases once or twice a week after midnight to be sent to the guerrilla fighters. But El Chino also wanted to fight and had asked Modesto and Danilo time and again to let him do so. Finally at the end of May 1979, they informed him that he would be number two in a column that would go to Nicaragua with comandante Ruiz [Modesto] on board the plane to be piloted by Chuchú.
From Panama to Managua
Less than a week after that failed mission, Evaristo was sent as the leader of the same men who had been in the plane, including Marcela’s brother, Horacio Rocha. This time they were bound for Costa Rica, ultimately to join up with the Southern Front. There he ran into Martín, General Torrijos’ oldest son and current President of Panama, who had recently arrived to find out what war was really like.
El Chino entered Managua on July 20 and by August was involved in the efforts to set up the new National Police force. By then he had brought over his wife Mariana and their six children: 14-year-old Rosa, who El Chino called Molo; 13-year-old Evaristo, who they called Tin; 12-year-old José, known as Pepe; 11-year-old Diana; and the twins, Mariana y Modesto, who had yet to celebrate their second birthday. Modesto was named after the pseudonym used by his father’s friend Henry Ruiz.
One of El Chino’s first missions as a police
subcommandante was to destroy the marihuana plantations set up by Somoza and his generals in Sébaco, Matiguás and other areas of Matagalpa for later distribution in Managua. There were never again marihuana plantations of that scale in Nicaragua. When the United States launched its war against Nicaragua, Tomás Borge sent Evaristo off to be military chief of the Mining Triangle [the area involving the three mining towns of Siuna, Rosita and Bonanza] in the North Atlantic region, precisely where he was supposed to have landed with Modesto in the plane piloted by Chuchú Martínez. As a result of his work, he saw little of his children. Tin was now an adolescent and had got involved with youth gangs. Although such gangs were very different back then, he was proving quite a headache for Mariana.
Tin, the youth gang memberTin ran away from home at the end of the April 1984. Wanting to go back to his native Panama, he hitched and walked his way towards the Costa Rican border until the police picked him up on the afternoon of May 7. They had been looking all over for him on orders from above, for reasons they soon explained: his father had been gunned down two days earlier in an ambush by counterrevolutionary forces between Siuna and Bonanza. Tin arrived back at his house in Managua’s Las Brisas neighborhood, hugged his mother, then cried bitterly on Róger’s shoulders. He couldn’t see his father’s body for the last time, because it had been so disfigured that orders had been given to seal the coffin.
Mariana remained in Nicaragua for a few more years, but could never get used to living without Evaristo or to Nicaraguan food and eventually decided to return home. Molo and Diana were sent to Cuba to finish their high school studies and then study medicine. The other children went back to Panama with their mother. By 1989, Tin was involved with youth gangs again, and in 1990 was caught by the new Panamanian police force installed by the US marines that had invaded the country the previous December. In jail, Tin accepted an offer to reveal the names of members of rival gangs and was let out after just two years. A few months later, the leaders of one of those gangs took revenge by shooting dead his brother Pepe, who had never been involved in any trouble and was Mariana’s exemplary son.
In 1995, Molo got her medical degree and returned to Panama, where she spent several years unable to work for the “crime” of having studied in Cuba. The same happened to Diana. Meanwhile, Mariana washed and ironed to earn enough money for little Mariana and Modesto to finish their education, while Tin attempted to rebuild his life while keeping one step ahead of his enemies. Three years ago they finally caught up with him, shot him twice and left him to die alone, bleeding to death in an alley in a poor neighborhood of Panama City.
That’s how they deserve to be rememberedMariana keeps reliving the pain suffered by her children. You can see it in her face. Her three daughters are married and have given her several grandchildren. She lives alone now, in a large house recently built by a road construction company that bought up her plot of land because the shack she had put up was in the way of one the new asphalt strips planned to gird Panama City. She whiles away the hours alone, chain smoking and spending every minute of the day trying to find someone who can help her hire a lawyer to defend her son Modesto, who’s been locked up without a trial for two years after some “friends” set him up in the mechanics garage where he was working.
She smiles for the first time in many years when she celebrates the victory of Martín Torrijos, the son of her beloved General, as if it were her own, proudly commenting that Torrijos will once more be President of Panama. Deep down in her heart she nurtures the hope that Martín, who was with Evaristo on the Southern Front, will remember her and give her back her son.
But Montaña doesn’t want Róger or anyone else to remember El Chino’s sons Pepe and Tin as gunned down by gangs. He wants them remembered as heroes. And he tells the story, as clearly as if he were experiencing it all again, of how that pair of youngsters took rifles from the rubble of the Tinajita barracks and became snipers for several days to shoot as many gringo invaders as they could.
“There, on that hill,” says Pedro Montañez, with a pride in his voice that barely conceals the pain, as he points out a slight elevation to the north of the city. “That’s where Pepe shot down a Yankee helicopter. He knelt down while Tin and me covered him and he shot… Zas! And down it came! And then we ran and we ran. They could never get us. Pepe and Tin were heroes of the resistance against the Yankee invaders, just like their father. And that’s how they deserve to be remembered.”
William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.