Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 90 | Enero 1989


Central America

Waging Peace

Envío team

The Central American peace plan has dropped out of the news these days, pushed to back pages by more startling developments in the Middle East, Angola, Namibia and Afghanistan. Since the contra leaders left the negotiating table in June, and El Salvador and Honduras, under US pressure, continually postponed another Central American presidential summit, little progress has been possible. In Nicaragua, the contra war is at a low ebb, but the sense that a peace agreement is just around the corner, so much in the air last year, is no longer felt.

Yet today as in years past, a different kind of peace process goes on within the country, progressing in fits and starts. Five leaders of the Indian rebel group Yatama sign a peace accord with the Nicaraguan government, along with 250 troops; they get to keep their guns. A band of peasants set off on foot and horseback into the mountains of Nueva Guinea, bringing a message of peace to isolated communities and talking far into the night with local commanders of the contras’ Southern Front. Contra and Sandinista soldiers meet in the mountainsides of Nueva Segovia, and swap knapsacks, hats and stories. A contra soldier slips off from his unit and arrives at the door of a country church, asking for help in receiving amnesty. These are just some of the initiatives the government and communities all over Nicaragua have launched in an effort to end a war that has cost over 28,000 lives, devastated the economy and torn apart the fabric of this society. Here envío looks at the victories and limitations of some of these past and present overtures to peace.


From December 1983 to mid-November 1988, 5,057 people have taken advantage of amnesty laws, according to the Ministry of the Interior, which publishes a complete listing of their names and places of origin. Several thousand Miskito fighters also signed peace agreements with the government—they are not included in the amnesty figures because a number of them have kept their arms as autonomous militias and because the government confers on them a special status, not requiring them to ask for amnesty. According to official figures of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), an additional 15,867 refugees, the vast majority of them indigenous people from the Atlantic Coast, have returned home with the aid of UNHCR. Figures of the Nicaraguan Social Welfare Institute (INSSBI), which assists those who repatriate, show that another 17,000 indigenous refugees have crossed the Río Coco back into Nicaragua without UNHCR assistance. This November, Nicaraguan and Costa Rican immigration officials reached a new agreement to arrange the return of Nicaraguans to their country.

Amnesty and an open-door policy towards returning refugees are cornerstones of the Nicaraguan government's effort to achieve peace. This is a pragmatic tool to put an end to war, but is also motivated by a belief that those led astray by the counterrevolution deserve an opportunity to return to the fold.

The Nicaraguan government first offered amnesty on the conflictive Atlantic Coast. Issued December 1, 1983, this law granted amnesty to all citizens of Miskito origin who committed crimes against public order and security since December 1, 1981, whether they were in prison or free, inside the country or out. It also covered other Nicaraguan citizens who had committed such crimes in connection with the conflict in the northern part of the Atlantic Coast. Three hundred and seven prisoners were immediately released. Four days later, this law was extended to cover all Nicaraguans who had left the country since July 19, 1979, with the exception of top-level contra leaders, members of Somoza’s National Guard and members of Somoza’s security forces.

A new amnesty covering all contras, including top leadership, was the first law the newly established National Assembly passed in January 1985, and it has been renewed every year since. This November 21, the National Assembly again renewed it until July 19, 1989, as “one more sign of the government’s desire to promote national reconciliation and continue complying with the Esquipulas II accords.”

Esquipulas and amnesty

Under the impetus of the Esquipulas accords signed by the five Central American nations in August 1987, the Nicaraguan government relaxed the procedures for its already generous amnesty laws. It was not required by the accords to do so. While the peace accords specified that each country should issue an amnesty decree and guarantee the rights of those who take amnesty—laws Nicaragua already had on the books—it did not spell out whom amnesty should cover or how it should be administered.

To encourage contras to take amnesty, they no longer had to turn themselves in to government authorities. Instead, they could go to any member of the peace commissions formed after the accords were signed—usually a priest, pastor or Red Cross worker—who would then accompany them to the local Ministry of the Interior (MINT) post. Questioning by the MINT was now limited to a few simple facts such as name, place of origin and length of time with the contras. If those who took amnesty were eligible under the draft laws, they were given a six-month reprieve before serving their turn of duty.

On November 5, 1987, Nicaragua pardoned and released 985 prisoners, including 200 ex-National Guardsmen and others held for collaborating with the contras. This was one of the gestures the government made to mark the date by which all five Central American nations had agreed to take the steps towards peace, reconciliation and democratization listed in the accords. President Ortega also presented to the National Assembly a new law that again expanded the category of who could receive amnesty. It covered all those serving prison sentences for violations of the Law for the Maintenance of Public Order and Security, excepting only those held on treason convictions and guardsmen imprisoned for crimes committed during the Somoza regime. This decree, approved by the Assembly, would take effect automatically when the International Verification and Follow-up Commission for the Esquipulas accords declared that the United States was ending its funding for the contras and that neighboring Central American countries were complying with the accords by taking steps to remove contra forces from their territory.

On January 16, 1988, following dissolution of the Verification Commission in a Central American summit meeting, President Ortega declared that the above amnesty decree could take effect immediately once a definitive cease-fire was reached. If no definitive cease-fire is reached with the counterrevolutionaries, these prisoners could be released if the United States or any non-Central American country agrees to accept them. Since peace talks stalled, this law has not yet been put in force and no country has come forward offering to accept the prisoners.

The new amnesty campaign touched off by Esquipulas II drew many takers; the numbers of those taking amnesty and returning as refugees increased sharply during August-November 1987, one of the peak moments of the Esquipulas process (jumping from an average of 329 monthly in the first seven months of 1987 to 656 monthly in the August-November 1987 period). Lester Ponce, a contra leader who took amnesty then and joined the Ocotal peace commission, explained the effect of the campaign. “I knew about it,” he said, referring to the amnesty law before Esquipulas, you feel there are more guarantees. A lot of people feel this way.”

In total, however, 1986 was the top year for those taking amnesty, perhaps reflecting the pragmatic reason many contras turned in their arms: 1986 is known as the turning point in the war, when the Sandinista army gained a clear advantage. Ex-contras often cite the feeling that their battle could not be won, as well as corruption and deadly infighting within contra leadership and troops, as reasons for seeking amnesty. Contra intelligence chief Horacio Arce, who took amnesty in early November of this year, explained why after seven years of warfare he was at last putting down his arms. “This is an empty war that isn’t going to go anywhere, it will only bring more sorrow to the Nicaraguan people.” He told how top contra leader Enrique Bermúdez and his followers were involved in corruption and intrigue, and commented on killings that went on among the contras themselves. “They sell off everything, military equipment, medicine, food, cigarettes, even arms…”

With the signing of the Sapoá accords between the Nicaraguan government and the contra umbrella group, the Nicaraguan Resistance, in March 1988, the government once again offered to stretch the amnesty decree. Immediately releasing 100 prisoners whose names had been submitted by the contras, Nicaragua promised to give amnesty to half of all those held for counterrevolutionary activity once the contras entered cease-fire zones. The remaining prisoners would be released when a definitive cease-fire was agreed upon. For members of Somoza’ National Guard imprisoned right after the insurrection, amnesty would be decided on a case by case basis according to the findings of the OAS International Human Rights Commission. (According to international human rights organization Americas Watch, when this proposal was announced, some 1,800 National Guard and 1,600 people accused of contra activities remained in jail.)

With this new step, Nicaragua moved very close to the "total amnesty" demand promoted by the internal opposition, and shifted the responsibility for any amnesty denials on to the OAS—leaving only common criminals beyond the scope of amnesty. But because the contras broke off talks in June, this measure was not applied.

Since then, with less action by both the government and peace commissions to encourage amnesty, the pace of those seeking it slowed. Aside from the hundreds of indigenous troops who reached separate peace agreements on the Atlantic Coast, only 846 took amnesty this year so far. Contra measures to combat desertion through intimidation and terror also helped put the brakes on the amnesty process. Repatriation, however, proceeds at a faster pace than ever: according to official UNHCR statistics, 8,063 people this year so far.

Amnesty debate: The limits to forgiving

The issue of amnesty stirred deep and conflicting emotions among Nicaraguans. It was a difficult process for them to reach agreement on the very broad amnesty described above. The months following the signing of the Esquipulas peace accords were full of marches, mobilizations and debates on the subject in newspapers and on the airwaves. Some opposition and church leaders and the Mothers of January 22 (an organization of relatives of guardsmen) called for immediate and "total" amnesty, to include all National Guard and those imprisoned for contra activity. Meanwhile, the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs (an organization of women with relatives killed by the National Guard and contras), Sandinista mass organizations and other groups lobbied fiercely for a "No to total amnesty," restricting it to contras who lay down their arms. President Ortega, in the interest of keeping the peace process moving forward, slowly pushed the concept of broadening amnesty. But at a local level, even the FSLN’s own position regarding amnesty was far more ambivalent. FSLN representatives organized discussions of amnesty in neighborhood and workplace meetings, encouraging people to vent their emotions.

This was not an abstract debate. Sandinista National Assembly representative Rosario Antúnez, whose daughter was killed by the Guard during the Somoza dictatorship, could not bear to think of that guardsman walking free on the streets of her native Ocotal. "To accept that the Guard should go free... to forget that past... I would have to forget that I had ever given birth." sign in a march echoed this sentiment. "Those who want total amnesty: Let them give us back our children."

To those who had risked their lives and lost loved ones to put an end to fifty years of dictatorship and repression, setting free the National Guard, the instrument of that repression, was an almost unthinkable step. Few could forget the years of martial law from 1974-77 in which some 3,000 people were killed in the Guard's crackdown, or the 50,000 people killed in the final stages of the insurrection. Although in some cases the Guard and the contras were one and the same people, the idea of turning loose the imprisoned guardsmen as a group was charged with a negative symbolism of concessions, of erasing the past, that many could not accept.

Amnesty for those contras who turned themselves in, on the other hand, was never seriously questioned. A young Miskito in Puerto Cabezas describes the pragmatic desire to end the war that allows him to accept the idea—and in his case, the all too real practice—of amnesty for the contras. He knows that the very men who killed his two brothers in the Sandinista army are now walking the streets of his town. "It's painful," he explains, "but if we want the war to end we have to show an example of forgiveness. They'll never trust us and stop fighting if we don't."

But the population remains divided on the issue of a broader amnesty. In a random survey of Managua residents conducted by the independent research center Itztani on June 4-5, 1988, after the amnesty debate had faded, 46% of all respondents still stated that they favored partial amnesty, 37% were for total amnesty and 9% opposed any form of amnesty at all.

In a September 1987 speech to the Inter-American Conference of Jurists in Havana, Interior Minister Tomas Borge, the sole surviving founder of the FSLN, set forth the subtle distinction between amnesty as forgetting past crimes and amnesty as forgiving those crimes. "Amnesty means forgetting, but forgetting, remember, [only] in juridical terms. The people, ladies and gentlemen, don't forget... In the best of all possible cases, going along with the Sandinista principle of being implacable in combat and generous in victory, our people will be able to forgive...."

AMNLAE member Lidia Meza, whose husband was killed by the contras, echoed this distinction between forgiving and forgetting. "It would be lying to say you forget. You can't forget, ever. But you do forgive, because you want to put an end to the killing. You forgive because you want to build a world without hate."

Rights and reintegration

A key element of a successful amnesty policy is whether the rights of those who take amnesty are subsequently respected. There are remarkably few stories, even rumors, of those who have taken amnesty being subsequently harassed or detained. Government human rights agency CNPPDH claims that no violations of the rights of those who have taken amnesty have been reported to their office. "They all seem to return to normal life without legal or human rights problems," said the CNPPDH's Myrna Santiago. US human rights group Witness for Peace, which carefully monitors the situation in the war zones, has come across a couple of incidents where those who took amnesty were questioned by the MINT for longer than is mandated, but sees no pattern of disregard for the rights of those who have taken amnesty. Opposition daily La Prensa, which would surely make the most of any violation of amnesty rights, has not picked this up as an issue.

In its latest report on Nicaragua (Human Rights in Nicaragua, August 1987-August 1988), Americas Watch cites only one case that could possibly be termed an abuse of amnesty rights. While the case is serious, the facts are far from clear, and Americas Watch did not do its own investigation. José Efren Mondragón, the first contra field commander to accept amnesty, was killed near the Honduran border in March 18, 1988, three years after he returned to Nicaragua under the amnesty program. Interior Minister Borge, interviewed by Americas Watch in June 1988, stated that Mondrag6n had been warned of the dangers of visiting his family in the north and that he died in a skirmish between the army and the contras, in circumstances that were not clear.

Aside from this, however, Americas Watch only chides the Nicaraguan government for a case of applying amnesty too generously. “We do not believe amnesty should be granted to those who have committed torture, murder, rape or ‘disappearance’—whether members of the government or of the opposition. We are disturbed to learn, for instance, that a combatant for the contras, Sumu Indian Ampino Palacios, one of the few fighters to have been convicted and sentenced by the contras for killing civilians, has been amnestied by the Nicaraguan government, pursuant to its amnesty program for combatants who surrender.” This case only follows the rules of the Nicaraguan amnesty policy: amnesty is given to any who lay down their arms. There is no investigation of past crimes.

The peace commission members interviewed by envío for this article reported only three cases of possible abuses of amnesty rights. The first was the detention by the MINT in Jinotega of a contra fighter who had taken amnesty last year. The person was then released through the intervention of the Jinotega peace commission. In the community of La Batea, a contra who had taken amnesty was then accused of stealing and put in jail without due process. Through the intervention of the peace commission and a high-level regional government official, he was freed. In Muelle de los Bueyes, one of some forty people who had taken amnesty was recruited by the military before his six-month reprieve from the draft had elapsed. Again, with the local peace commission’s intervention, he was let go.

The relatively few cases of violations of amnesty rights are surprising, given the fact that most of those who have been amnestied live in areas that are still in the heart of the war zone. The government is not always capable of preventing those who have been harmed by the contras from taking vengeance. And careful observance of amnesty rights involves a substantial security risk. There have been a number of cases of young men sent by the contras to take amnesty only to act as spies and civilian collaborators. Under the protection of amnesty, they are hard to track down. In the most conflictive zones, especially in parts of Region V (Boaco-Chontales) and VI (Matagalpa-Jinotega), violations of due process for suspected contra collaborators are taking place, but special care for the rights of those amnestied is official policy and, according to the information currently available to envío, is being followed to a great extent by local officials. In the few cases where these rights have not been respected, peace commissions have played an effective role in getting redress.

There are no official programs for reintegrating those who take amnesty back into their communities. But peace commissions have made some efforts to provide them with food, shelter and clothing when they first return. Some towns held public ceremonies to welcome them back, and neighborhood associations and the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs have been active in some areas in looking after their welfare. Many have received land to farm. The Agricultural Ministry's 1988 plan includes a priority of giving land to those who take amnesty.

According to Ana Rosa Rodriguez, peace commission member in the conflictive zone of Muelle de los Bueyes, those who have taken amnesty are peacefully working and have been accepted back by the people. Why this acceptance? "Some were taken by force, others because they got mad at something or other that happened to them. But they are accepted back because they are all the same as us," she explained gently. "They are the same people."

The contras’ anti-amnesty campaign

contra leaders have waged a bitter fight against the amnesty campaign that threatens to rob them of their troops. Those who take amnesty say that it and the peace accords themselves were forbidden topics among the contra troops. At the height of the Esquipulas II appeal for contras to lay down their arms, contra leaders confiscated radios from their troops and from Nicaraguan refugees in Honduran camps. "The contra chiefs are afraid people will desert," said Denis Loaisiga, a contra leader who took amnesty in late 1987. He said that contra leaders were now paying attention to political education for their troops, giving them an explanation of why they were fighting, in order to harden them to the amnesty appeal. "Now they're talking about politics, and they never did that before."

The price for deserting the contras can be your life. "Those who desert no longer count for anything," said Loaísiga. "They'll get their throats slit as an example." Loaísiga explained that those judged to be vacillating would have their heads shaved, then the contras’ civilian collaborators would be told to kill anyone with a shaven head.

In one of several such cases documented by Witness for Peace, Red Cross health worker Victor Manuel Tercero was killed by contras near Qualalí, Nueva Segovia, on August 2, 1988, seven months after he took amnesty. The contras then returned to kidnap his three sisters, but they were not home. The family fled the area. "They kill all who take amnesty," said Tercero's mother Juana Gonzalez Rodriguez. "We can't go back to our farm. I'm never going to return."

According to Witness for Peace's media director, Carrie Parker, many contras who take amnesty subsequently take up arms in the Sandinista army or the MINT, as protection from their former comrades in arms. In other cases, those who take amnesty feel forced to settle in new places, often in or near towns, where they feel safer from reprisal by the contras. A member of a Region V peace commission stated flatly that no one who took amnesty could return home, for fear of contra reprisal. "They go to the towns near where they lived before. They don't dare return to their farms."

Peace commissions

The Esquipulas II accords called on each country to set up a National Reconciliation Commission (CNR) to oversee the reconciliation process, to be made up of government, opposition and religious leaders. Nicaragua set up a commission presided by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo and including Vice President Sergio Ramirez, opposition party leader Mauricio Diaz and Protestant development agency (CEPAD) president Gustavo Parajón. But Nicaragua then went beyond the Esquipulas requirements, also calling on communities to set up their own local peace commissions. In the months following Esquipulas II, over 250 commissions were formed.

envío interviewed members of various commissions in Regions I, V and VI, areas strongly affected by the war, during October-November 1987 and September-November 1988. Their problems and accomplishments differed substantially, depending on the individuals who make up the commissions and the particular circumstances of their area.

Local peace commissions are generally headed by a priest or pastor and include members of opposition parties, the Red Cross, farmers and often pastors or Catholic Delegates of the Word. In the larger towns, they tend to be the better-off citizens, heads of opposition parties, priests and so on. In the little villages, they are peasants, often lay leaders in Catholic or evangelical churches. Some commissions include ex-contras or those who had been contra collaborators. One decidedly pro-Sandinista citizen of a town in northern Nicaragua summed up his local commission with only a degree of exaggeration: "Four contras and a priest." Generally, a Sandinista representative was appointed to act as liaison to the commission but was not part of the commission itself. A number of peace commission members interviewed mentioned the importance of maintaining independence from the government. "We're autonomous," said one member of a local commission, "and very jealous of our autonomy."

An FSLN delegate explained that religious leaders were chosen in his community "because they carry weight with the people—not necessarily with us, rather with those who might take amnesty. Others on the commission were chosen because they are not Sandinistas, and they all showed interest in contributing to peace." Peace commissions were started either by the local FSLN leader inviting people to join, or by community religious leaders taking the initiative.

"Talking is the way"

What motivated people to join the peace commissions? "I'm one of those who thinks that talking is the way," said Arturo Ponce, a well-off farmer on the Ocotal peace commission. "Here there's a saying that I think is important: A bad agreement is better than a good fight."

For many, the motivation is religious. "It's our duty to seek reconciliation through nonviolent means," said Antonio Vivas, an evangelical pastor on the Nueva Guinea zonal peace commission. "As peace commission members we must function like a pastor who has a big church with some members on the right and some members on the left. The pastor must be a mediator, a reconciler and remember that both sides are from the same church." Another person involved through CEPAD in supporting the work of the peace commissions in Nueva Guinea is a prosperous US-educated businessman, owner of a car import business and a chain of pizza parlors in Managua. He explained that it was his Christian duty to work towards peace. "Both sides need a little sensitivity," he stated calmly. "The language of violence is everywhere. But it's not as the US sees it. The US does not understand."

Not all invited wanted to join. "They invited me," said Enrique Siles Castro, vice president of the Independent Liberal Party of Jinotega, interviewed by envío last year as he was cutting hair in his storefront barbershop. He stated that the government would have to set free all prisoners in the country before he would join a commission. "I didn't want to get involved because the commission is just clowning around."

Where should the commissions stand?

To create peace commissions often largely composed of those opposed to the government lent the commissions credibility, but also posed a risk. While the government clearly hoped the commissions would center their work on issuing a call for amnesty, in fact many commissions put other issues, most notably demands that the government release contra prisoners, at the top of their agenda. "The most important [task] is to work for freedom for political prisoners," said and Porfirio Molina Palacios, executive secretary of the Jinotega peace commission and a Democratic Conservative Party leader, interviewed by envío in November 1987. "As a party we're not going to make a call to the armed forces; this has to be discussed with the top contra leaders.... We see amnesty as letting all of the political prisoners free. We’re asking for all those who have been involved in counterrevolutionary activities to be set free as a sign of good will." Others on the Jinotega commission brought up the issue of the draft, asserting that it should be stopped during the peace process. "It doesn't bring the taste of peace that the people need so much," said Father Douglas Arraica, an alternate on the commission. In another town in the same region, opposition parties tried to use the peace commission to set up a party structure where they had not had a presence before.

In September 1987, right after the formation of the peace commissions, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, headed by Cardinal Obando, issued a public statement urging that the commissions be put under direct control of the National Reconciliation Commission (CNR). The bishops claimed that there were ad hoc peace commissions being “managed, outside of if not against the CNR, by the [Sandinista] mass organizations.” They objected to the idea that the commissions should call for the contras to lay down their arms, rather than promoting a negotiated cease- fire. The bishops called for "an amnesty conceived of as total forgetting, on both sides, of the offenses and errors committed by one brother against another.” The message added that the government should release prisoners and harshly criticized the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs for their stand against total amnesty.

The government agreed to the Bishops' Conference's demand that regional commissions be formed, directly under the authority of the CNR and headed by the local bishop. The CNR then sent a directive to local commissions that their job was not to actively issue a call for amnesty, but to be accessible for dialogue with the contras. This was a point of conflict within the CNR," said CEPAD president Gustavo Parajón, a CNR member. "We [as CEPAD] had no problems with the idea that people in the Resistance should hear explanations of what amnesty is," said Parajón, explaining how his point of view differed from some others on the CNR. "We believed and believe in the Esquipulas plan. And we are very interested in making peace a reality...." Parajón's position was that each local commission should be free to decide for itself how to operate.

At the local level, the issue of how and whether the peace commission should actively promote amnesty is a delicate one. "We have to be careful to win the confidence of the people," explained one peace commission member in a particularly conflictive zone. "We don't go out and promote amnesty...we take care of those who choose to take amnesty or return from Costa Rica." "I don't say, 'Why don't you take amnesty?"” explained another member of the same commission. "I say, 'Why don't you come and talk?'"

Peace commission accomplishments

The peace commissions are a highly unusual effort to wage peace in the midst of war. They operate in areas where people for years have heard the sounds of guns in the night as contras and army troops clash, where peasants on cooperatives are constantly on guard, often having to rebuild their homes from the ashes several times, and bury bodies of men, women and children, victims of contra attacks. These are areas where the contras kill teachers, health workers and agrarian reform workers as they wage a war whose specialty is wounding, kidnapping and killing civilians. And these are also areas where peasants have resented and resisted the draft, where the Sandinista army has had to maintain a heavy presence. The act of joining a peace commission in such an area is a brave one. It takes nerve for a peasant to speak out critically to the government in the war zones, it takes bravery to risk being kidnapped or killed by the contras merely for the act of joining a commission. The fact that these commissions exist, then, is itself a remarkable feat.

The peace commissions' most vital role is receiving those taking amnesty and assuring that their rights are respected. A number of peace commissions have also been actively involved in promoting repatriation of refugees, helping organize the border openings at Las Manos and carrying letters to relatives of community members who had fled to Honduras and Costa Rica, sometimes paving the way for their return.

In various areas on the Pacific and interior of Nicaragua, the commissions have acted as a mediating force between the government and internal opposition, bringing about the release of prisoners and serving as a forum for complaints regarding army and government abuses, some of which have resulted in punishment for those responsible. While figures on how many prisoners have been released through peace commission intervention are not available, our interviews indicate that significant numbers of those detained but not yet tried were released during the September-December 1987 period, when individual peace commissions presented lists of prisoners to local authorities, and that the government has responded, although in a lesser and more sporadic way, to such requests since. Opening the door to discussion of army abuses and detentions in the war zones in the midst of an ongoing war is in itself a significant step.

As is happening in Nueva Guinea (see below), the commissions in some areas have the potential to act as a force for community reconciliation. A Muelle de los Bueyes peace commission member said that the major advance of his commission was to get people talking. "Before they didn't talk if someone in their family was detained, or with the contras; they felt ashamed. Now they've begun to talk. We're acting as intermediaries now, but what we really want is for people to have confidence in themselves, to go and speak for themselves. 'Go ahead, go and say that to the political leader,' we tell them. And they are beginning to speak out."

A number of peace commissions approached local contra groups, asking for the release of kidnap victims, in a few cases securing their release. Two peace commission members in Region V, for example, marched into the hills to try to win the release of a Delegate of the Word kidnapped for the second time by the contras, after the contra leader "Johnny" had promised the commission to let him stay free. "In the name of God, I ask you to carry out your promise," read an open letter the commission sent to Johnny. "Do you have no heart? Don't the tears of his wife and children move you?” In general, efforts to meet with the contras to discuss abuses or the possibility of arranging a cease-fire with the government have met with very limited success.

Returning to the Atlantic Coast

The Atlantic Coast's peace and autonomy commissions have been more effective on the whole in their peacemaking efforts, which are still ongoing. On November 9, 5 leaders of the indigenous rebel group Yatama, along with some 250 of their troops, signed a peace accord with the Nicaraguan government. They come from the Prinzapolka River area of the Atlantic Coast and are among the last forces operating within Nicaragua under Miskito leader Brooklyn Rivera. Some 300 Yatama troops are estimated to remain in Honduras under various commanders with little common coordination.

"We decided to enter into peace in order to help our communities," said Comandante "Pitufo" in a Managua press conference. 'The government showed us that it had confidence in us, and that's why we're here today.” As with previous such agreements, some of these Yatama forces—the same people who took up arms against the government—will keep their weapons and form a militia to defend the Prinzapolka River area in coordination with the army. The Nicaraguan government in turn agreed to provide support for community development projects, including schools, health centers and agricultural, fishing and mining projects.

Some twenty such accords signed over the past three years form the basis of the peace that for the most part now reigns over the Atlantic Coast, where a bitter war once raged. Most of the cease-fire accords with breakaway detachments of the Miskito fighters were reached with the help of local peace and autonomy commissions, created at the community level to convince their armed relatives to move towards peace. The commissions have earned the respect of both their communities and the government, in some cases turning into incipient local power structures. Unlike the more limited role of the peace commissions in the Pacific, those on the Coast are seen as part of developing self- government in the autonomy process.

Why couldn’t they do more?

In recent months, the peace commissions in many parts of the Pacific and interior of Nicaragua have abandoned or slowed their work. Most have not lived up to the perhaps unrealistic promise of being dynamic forces for community reconciliation.

One reason for their limitations is that they have not been actively encouraged in their work by the CNR as a body, although individual members, most notably CEPAD, have given them support. Indeed, the CNR appeared to be more concerned with reigning in their work and limiting it to certain issues than to whole-heartedly encouraging community initiatives. The CNR was so inattentive to the work of the peace commissions that in June most members of the CNR were not even aware that some commissions continued to be active. The position of the CNR reflects a deeper problem that helped to slow reconciliation at a local level: a lack of willingness to enter into sincere dialogue on the part of some opposition party and church leaders.

Second, the peace commissions had a greater degree of success when high-level negotiations were going on between the contras and the government. When such negotiations are not going on, the contras are not receptive to approaches and the general feeling that peace is around the corner, which gives inspiration to commission members and their communities, is missing. The government loses the impetus to offer signs of peace and compromises are harder to come by. "We need an overall atmosphere of peace to do our work," explained Condega peace commission member Santiago Pascual.

A number of peace commission members interviewed by envío mentioned the difficulties of promoting peace while a polarized wartime situation still reigned. "To go out to meet with the contras, we had to go protected by armed men from the FSLN or from cooperatives' militias," explained one peace commission member. "That way you can't win people's confidence." He noted that one night the bodies of two contras who had attacked a local family were left naked, he presumes by Sandinista soldiers, in the town's public square. While the local FSLN representative was as horrified by this act as he was, the damage to the atmosphere of reconciliation had already been done. “When things like that happen,” this peace commission member lamented, “what can we do?”

A peace commission member in La Batea explained how one relatively small incident can set the whole process of reconciliation back. When someone who took amnesty was arrested for allegedly stealing, 18 contras who had made contact with this commission member decided not to take amnesty. Even though the person detained was later released, this act "sowed the seed of mistrust," explained the commission member. They think that the commission serves as a trampoline," delivering people to the authorities. Until that point several months ago, he believed that the La Batea commission was doing good work, receiving contras taking amnesty and resolving a number of cases of people being detained.

A poor peasant in Nueva Guinea listed for envío a set of steps he believed the government needed to take to move the local peace process forward. While he was actively involved in his peace commission and seemed genuinely motivated to help bring peace about, these steps illustrate the high expectations that have at times made it difficult for the government to respond. “They [the government] must do three things first before the peace commissions can do their work. First, stop the draft. That's the most important, that's what we peasants have most trouble with. Next, stop taking the lands of the people who have joined the Resistance, and give confiscated land back. Third, do something about the people who have been detained.” While the third condition could be—and is to a certain extent—addressed, all three conditions are difficult to apply during wartime, before the contras agree to a definitive cease-fire. Yet this peasant, as would many others, presented these strongly felt demands as necessary preconditions for working towards peace.

The government also does not seem to have presented the peace commissions, or its own representatives acting as liaisons to them, with a clear idea of which issues are negotiable and which are not. Government response very much depends on the receptiveness of the local FSLN leaders. The government views the ethnic and historic demands of Atlantic Coast peoples as legitimate and has pledged to meet them, thus giving the peace and autonomy commissions there much more concrete proof of compromise and promise to point to when persuading their relatives and neighbors to walk the road toward peace.

In the rest of Nicaragua, however, it is much more difficult for the government to do this. There the contras’ direct ties to the US and to the ex-National Guard leaders of the main contra grouping, the FDN, make any kind of separate negotiations harder, because their leadership and their demands are not seen as legitimate. There is no local agenda with which the government can make certain compromises. The contras’ final goal, after all, has nothing to do with meeting the local population's needs and aspirations. It is to overthrow the Nicaraguan government and roll back the revolution. The contras in the Pacific and interior are also more tightly linked to their top leadership than on the Atlantic Coast, making it more difficult to reach a separate peace with them.

In their attempts to open up communication with the contras, the peace commissions have been run aground by the contras’ lack of response—or their response of terror. The violent intimidation is not limited to discouraging their own foot soldiers from contemplating amnesty, as we detailed above; it is also aimed at peace commission members and even uninvolved civilians. "The day before, [the contras] killed a farmer because his sons were in the army," said one commission member. "The wake is going on right now. With the government at least we can ask for redress—but with the other people [the contras], how can we do it?" she said, the pain sounding in her voice. "To whom can we call for redress?"

In many areas, the peace commissions simply do not dare approach the contras. In Qualalí during the October-November 1987 cease-fire, for example, a group of women looking for their relatives in the contra forces asked the peace commission to go with them into the cease-fire zone, but the peace commission refused, out of fear. Contras then stopped the women, who went on alone, and threatened to burn the truck they traveled in if they did not turn back. During this same period, contras ambushed a truck near El Cuá in which peace commission members were traveling.

In a number of cases, government and religious leaders, not officially members of peace commissions but doing similar work, have been threatened and attacked by the contras. Sandinista representative Moisés Córdoba and radio reporter Esperanza Flores were ambushed and killed September 7, 1987, when they returned from a meeting where they were promoting amnesty. In October 1987, Father Enrique Blandón and pastor Gustavo Adolfo Tiffer from Waslala were kidnapped by the contras for twelve days after they set out to meet a group of contras who had sent a letter asking for an explanation of the Esquipulas peace plan. Italian priest Uvaldo Gervasoni was held for a day in April 1988 by the contras after he spoke out against contra activity in the same area.

Finally, there are the limitations of the peace commission members themselves. "We lacked vision, we lacked an assertiveness in working towards peace," Father Bernard Boulang lamented, speaking of not only his own commission but of commissions across the country.

The Nueva Guinea Peace Commissions:
"Show him the error of his ways"

The villages surrounding the frontier town of Nueva Guinea are at the center of a war zone. Each tiny bridge along the highway is flanked by hand-painted signs saying "Mined," cautioning people to stay away from the banks below, where the Sandinista army has placed mines to prevent the contras from blowing up the bridges. The names of the sleepy little towns are very familiar to the traveler—from accounts of contra attacks. It was in this war- ravaged area that, when many commissions nationwide found their work at a standstill, local commissions showed signs of new life. While the results are not yet in, the strength of these community initiatives and the flexibility shown by the government in this area warrants a closer look.

In July 1988 the Nueva Guinea zonal peace commission and about 100 members of the 33 local commissions held a meeting with local authorities and national and regional CEPAD representatives to deride the direction their work would take. FSLN representative Adolfo Hernandez told the commission members that "no government is perfect. We want you to tell us about any problems you discover so we can investigate the cases and make corrections where necessary.”

One problem facing the Nueva Guinea commissions was the accord reached with the government that commission members would be exempt from the draft. The commissions had become crowded with inactive members, slowing their work and causing concern to government officials, who felt many of these members were simply joining to avoid the draft. The commissions decided to limit each one to four to six active community leaders. (The exemption from the draft still applied.) They agreed that each commission must include at least one Catholic lay leader and two evangelical church leaders, reflecting the preponderance of evangelical believers in the area.

The peace commissions set themselves three tasks: promoting respect for human rights by both the government and the contras, promoting community actions for peace and reconciliation, and promoting dialogue for a definitive cease-fire agreement between local contra groups and the government. This latter possibility may indicate that the government felt these contra groups, which are more locally based than those operating in the north, might be interested in arranging a separate peace. There may be some negotiable local issues here, given the degree of social base the contras have gained. The peace commission members themselves appear to be neutral or anti-government, with some undoubtedly leaning towards the contras. Like many peasants in the mountains around Nueva Guinea, the commission members don’t talk of the government and the contras, they speak more guardedly of “these people” and “the others.”

The commission members came back into town the following month for a human rights workshop. The raggedly dressed peasants, wearing rubber boots up to their knees and straw hats or visored caps advertising farm products, listed as those who were literate read the UN Declaration of Human Rights aloud, then they discussed its application to their lives.

Zonal commission leader Antonio Vivas explained to the assembled peasants how to investigate and make formal denunciations of human rights abuses, stressing the importance of reporting on abuses committed by both sides. He underscored the need for eye-witness information, especially essential in these small rural communities where rumors run like wildfire and once said, can never be unsaid. In this meeting and in a pamphlet given out later, Vivas and other organizers used the example of the Gospel to back up their points. "If your brother does you wrong, talk to him and show him the error of his ways. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. But if he does not listen, then call one or two more, so that any accusation is based on two or three witnesses. If he does not listen to them, say it then to the community. And if he does not listen to the community, then you have to see him as one who does not believe in God...."

The Nueva Guinea peace commissions held all-night vigils in their village churches, with several hundred people joining in prayers for peace. In mid-September, 23 commission members, mainly evangelical pastors, went on foot and horseback out to communities tucked way in the mountains surrounding Nueva Guinea, where they talked with peasants, bringing a message of peace. These are areas where the contras have a base of support and the government scarcely enters; the only state presence is often the army. The government agreed to withdraw all its troops from the area for the duration of the five-day march, to leave the contras free to approach the marchers.

The pastors held ecumenical masses throughout the march, and listened to the problems the peasants brought up: food shortages due to the war and a serious plague of rats eating this year's harvest, cattle robberies and human rights abuses by both the Sandinista and contra armies. One community refused "to accept our message of peace," but many received them warmly, with hundreds of peasants joining in at some part along the march. "We must point out that the community of La Leiba prepared us a delicious lunch," the commission members wrote in their official report of the journey, compelled to document this generosity. They listed all of the dishes served.

In El Jícaro, three commanders of the contras’ Southern Front arrived as the commission members were cooking lunch. They met with them from 2 p.m. straight on until 1 a.m., and then breakfasted together in the morning. The pastors could not persuade the contras to arrange any kind of a cease-fire until the Nicaraguan government and top contra leadership agreed to a general cease-fire. The contras warned that they opposed the formation of peace commissions, and would capture any commission members if they tried again to enter this area.

While stymied in their attempts to arrange a cease-fire, the Nueva Guinea peace commissions have succeeded in opening channels for discussion and mediation in their conflict-ridden communities. People come to the peace commission with all kinds of disputes, “even over a chicken,” said a peace commission member from the village of Blanca Sandino. “If you can’t begin by building reconciliation within your own community,” this peasant explained, “much less will you be able to reach reconciliation with the Resistance.” Peace commission work has acted to create more of a sense of community among the Nueva Guinea peasants, with evangelicals and Catholics, often at cross-purposes, working together with a rare spirit of unity.

Many of the complaints channeled through the Nueva Guinea peace commissions are directed against the government, largely human rights abuses by the military such as improper recruitment practices, theft of cattle and other goods, and detentions. This emphasis reflects the strained relationship between peasants and the government in this particular area. But also “it’s because it’s the government that provides the forum for such complaints,” said Witness for Peace reporter Barbara Wenger, “not the contras.” “We get some misunderstandings about our work from both sides,” said peace commission leader Antonio Vivas. “But we have the backing of the government, and not of the others.”

“In a certain way it’s like the Atlantic Coast,” explained CEPAD’s Dr. Parajón. “In the sense that much of the population is not in agreement with the government, with the revolution. It’s also because this region, due to its history, grew very independent. The peasants have a sense of autonomy that’s different from other places on the Pacific…. It’s the isolation, the lack of roads, the hardships people endured to build these communities… they grew to have a sense of self- sufficiency.... And some errors committed [by the government] are first cousins to what happened on the Atlantic Coast. Yet it seems that the government has changed, and the people working there, in Nueva Guinea, have been very positive in promoting dialogue."

The government, too, marches for peace

Parallel to and perhaps inspired by the work of the peace commissions, the government in the northern Chontales area (Region V) in July-September of this year embarked upon an unusual campaign to bring a message of peace to isolated peasant communities.

Hiking miles into mountain villages, government and army representatives met with peasants, visiting house to house and holding meetings and religious services. "The trip was exhausting," confessed one delegation member, "since we were constantly climbing up and down hills, with rainstorms or with the sun beating down.” The delegation included Vice Minister of Agriculture Alonso Porras; government delegate for Region V, Augustín Lara; the regional head of state security, army officials and a medical brigade. Lara described the trip, in which the delegation visited some 25 communities, as "a message of peace, of work, of good will, in order to rectify errors committed and speed up solutions....” In village assemblies, the government delegation listened to complaints about army abuses, problems of marketing crops and requests for roads, bridges, schools, teachers and better supply sources for agricultural inputs. The government agreed to fix roads and bridges and send teachers, although it also stressed that the communities themselves needed to work towards their own development. Peasant fairs were set up to help the marketing and supply problems.

The delegation agreed to address peasant grievances against the army by compensating peasants for produce or cattle taken improperly, and by applying the draft law more flexibly. They agreed to suspend the draft and reserve duty law in a few communities for several months. The medical brigade gave consultations to 890 people and vaccinated 600.

This trip and similar efforts going on in Regions V and VI are part of an overall attempt to restore and improve services to peasants in the zones cut off by the war, areas where until recently government representatives would not have been able to enter safely. "That the government penetrates into the depths of the mountains where before only the contras were seen," said Maximo Fernandez, a peasant from the area interviewed by Barricada, "and that we peasants can go down to the towns without the contras following us, is a sign that we are on the right road to peace."

A controversial peace

The steps that the Nicaraguan government has taken to achieve peace within its borders, particularly when accelerated under the Esquipulas II peace process, have been neither cost-free nor uncontroversial. Allowing contra soldiers to rest and resupply in cease-fire zones and opening the amnesty door to those who could come back as contra collaborators, involved substantial military risks. But the risk was also political: how the government could bring its supporters along with it in a series of steps that seemed to many to be unacceptable concessions. According to Sofía Clark of the Foreign Ministry, the concessions made by the Nicaraguan government to push forward the peace process "created cracks in the FSLN as a mass organization in a way that had never happened before."

To ask soldiers to shoot to kill one day and receive the same people as amnestied Nicaraguans the next is to violate the basic psychology of war—to dehumanize the enemy. The Sandinista soldier had to manage two concepts simultaneously: the contras, as "beasts," as "Guardia," and those who take amnesty, their all too human brothers.

And to ask those with relatives killed by the contras to accept the concept and practice of amnesty, to ask Nicaraguans to watch contra leaders meet with the government on Nicaraguan soil, is to ask a lot of people who have devoted years of their lives to creating and defending this revolution. On the November 5, 1987, rally in the Plaza of the Revolution, celebrating the three-month deadline for the regional peace accords, some 100,000 Sandinista supporters waited tensely for President Daniel Ortega to announce the new steps the government would take. His announcement that 985 prisoners would be pardoned and that even the hated National Guard prisoners could possibly be freed was greeted with a stunned silence. His announcement that the unilateral cease-fire would be lifted and the army could enter into battle again was greeted with loud and long applause, and a sound of breath held then let out, a collective sigh of relief.

The same kind of response was common when government supporters watched on their televisions as contra leaders Adolfo Calero, Alfredo Cesar and military commanders "Toño" and "Fernando" stood with President Daniel Ortega and his brother General Humberto Ortega at the signing of the Sapoá accords. The reactions of a mother and daughter were typical of the range of emotion. "I felt, how could the government do this, how could they sit down and sign an agreement with the people who are killing us?" said the mother. Her daughter saw it slightly differently. "I was surprised," she explained, "but I felt if the government was doing it, it must be because they were strong enough to manage it, and it was a necessary step to peace."

The limits to reconciliation

Real community reconciliation will be a slow and delicate process. It will require an openness and flexibility that is impossible to achieve in wartime. It will require the people themselves to unravel the knot of personal hatred and desire for vengeance left after years of war. It will need to give some people, especially the peasants in the most conflictive zones, breathing space to be part of neither fight, neither for nor against. It will require patience, and it will require time.

The openings that the government has been able to make for peace in the midst of war, however, are remarkable. With no encouragement from the contras or the US government and little from much of the organized internal opposition, it has offered a diversity of ways to dialogue, to reach out. Most successful has been the opening on an individual level: anyone who chooses a way out of war can walk through the amnesty door.

Yet amnesty, the peace commissions and encounters are only the more obvious tools the Nicaraguan government has used to wage peace. Many of the dramatic policy changes made by the Nicaraguan government over the course of nine years of revolution can also be seen as part of a much broader effort to wage peace, to listen, to be flexible to the needs of its citizens. The autonomy worked out on the Atlantic Coast, the changes in land reform policy, expanding it and distributing individual as well as cooperative titles, the special attention given to the problems of peasants in the war zones, are all concrete responses to sources of discontent that added fuel to the fire of the contra war.

In the end, the enormous efforts of the Nicaraguan government and people to wage peace within their own borders come up hard against the underlying cause of the war. For all the real reasons for discontent among peasants in the most conflictive zones, which led some to take up arms, this is not a civil war. It is a war created and pushed and fed by powerful propaganda and financed from abroad, and until the dollars stop, there are limits on what this government and people can do to bring about a just and lasting peace.

* * *

“A Marvelous Spectacle”

During the unilateral cease-fires declared by the government in four zones October 5-November 5, 1987, and again during the bilateral cease-fire in April-May 1988 following the signing of the Sapoá accords, a number of peace commissions met with the contras, bringing the message of amnesty. There were also other types of encounters: between Sandinista troops and contras, and between contras in Honduras and their relatives in Nicaragua during day-long border openings at Las Manos.

Lidia Meza, a member of AMNLAE, the Nicaraguan Women's Association, who helped organize the encounters between Sandinista and contra troops in Region I (Estelí-Nueva Segovia-Madriz), described the mood. "It was a bit ugly at first, very tense," she said. "Then people loosened up. Little by little the dialogue started, and we began to understand each other." According to Meza, Sandinista soldiers and contras exchanged hats and knapsacks. In other encounters, Sandinista soldiers and contras attended masses, talked with each other, shared cigarettes and traded guns and ammunition.

Despite orders from top contra leaders not to meet with the Sandinista army, local contraleaders and their troops in a number of areas were willing to meet. "We know that our directorate is having talks with the FSLN," explained one contra soldier to independent daily El Nuevo Diario. "And if they're doing it we have the right to do it too, because we're the ones on the battlefront, and we understand that this war is a business deal for other people." Another contra soldier commented, "We're tired. We're bored of being in the mountains.... How I would love it if I could go home to my family. To work and enjoy myself, to hang out with a girl is my biggest wish."

At the height of Esquipulas II, Nicaragua opened its borders to Honduras at the town of Las Manos. Every Saturday for a number of weeks as many as 30,000 Nicaraguans at a time flocked to the border to see if their relatives in the contras or in Honduran refugee camps would cross to visit them or come home for good. "There never was anything like it and maybe there never will be again," said Jorge Ponce of the Ocotal peace commission, which worked long hours every week transporting people to the border and helping arrange the event. "It was a marvelous spectacle."

Contra leaders tried to keep their troops from crossing over into Nicaragua, and the Honduran army helped by blocking the roads to Las Manos. Only the most hard-line contras were allowed by their leaders to cross over; some of them then used the opportunity to distribute propaganda. One pamphlet showed a cartoon of Agriculture Minister Jaime Wheelock eating a sumptuous banquet while saying, "It's the fault of the war that there's no food." Honduran soldiers on the border were nervous and hostile, and during one of the encounters began shooting wildly at the crowd. "We had to throw ourselves on the ground," recalled the FSLN liaison to the Ocotal peace commission, Rosario Antunez.

When the border openings ended under Honduran pressure, the total netted of those taking amnesty was little more than a hundred—a good deal less than the government had hoped. But more certainly slipped back into Nicaragua without registering for amnesty, and thousands of citizens had the chance to look for and greet their missing relatives in the fair-like atmosphere of Las Manos. And the grandness of the gesture itself cannot be discounted. "Think of the Berlin Wall," said Rosario Antunez. "And the US doesn't open its borders to Mexico.... Nicaragua, being the one under attack, opens its borders to peace."

“It Was a Paradise”

Thirty-five years ago, as residents of Nueva Guinea will tell you, this territory was "pure jungle.” Agrarian frontier in the interior of Nicaragua, it was settled by peasantry forcibly pushed off the rich cotton-growing lands in the Pacific plains of Leon-Chinandega and the coffee farms of Jinotega-Matagalpa, during the agroexport boom of the sixties and seventies. The Somoza government established colonies here in one of its few large-scale agrarian reform projects, funded by the US Alliance for Progress.

The settling of Nueva Guinea was thus part of a calculated strategy to provide an escape valve for the peasantry forced off export-crop lands. But to the peasantry who then received insecure titles to uncleared land, the offer seemed a generous one. In the just cleared lands, peasants say, "you threw a seed and it sprouted." A furniture maker in Nueva Guinea described what the town was like when he arrived there 15 years ago. "It was a paradise. There was everything—food, medicine, good healthcare. There were doctors from the US. Everything is more difficult now. It's the war," he said, adding an explanation commonly heard in the area, echoing the broadcasts of contra and Costa Rican radio stations: "It's because we’re caught between the two superpowers."

Once the virgin forest had been cut down and its lumber exported, once lands were cleared and infrastructure built up, Somoza and the large landowners would have forced the peasantry off their lands, pushing them even further towards the Atlantic Coast—mirroring the process that had already taken place in much of this region as well as in other parts of the country. It was only a question of time. But in the Nueva Guinea settlements, that time never arrived, because the revolution intervened.

In the eyes of the intensely individualistic peasantry of Nueva Guinea, the revolution brought with it more government and fewer resources. US funds dried up, many of the doctors and wealthier farmers packed their bags and left, and the land reform affected landowners the peasantry did not see as their enemies. It brought a confusion of bureaucratic institutions for marketing, credit and agricultural services to replace the exploitative and paternalistic but simple ones provided by larger landowners. And as the war began to heat up, and contras started singling out and killing anyone associated with the government as it tried to bring land reform, health care and education to the countryside, the government was forced to withdraw into the rural towns. Soon the only government presence in some of the more isolated areas was the army, and the unpopular draft.

Witness for Peace reporter Barbara Wenger, stationed in Nueva Guinea, tells a story illustrating how many of the peasants in the area view the revolution and the contras. "A church worker, who as a religious leader had a government letter stating he should be exempt from the draft, was jailed for a night, presumably for draft evasion. The contras attacked the jail that night and he was killed in the attack. Who do people blame? Not the contras for killing him, but the government for putting him in jail."

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