Road Ends at El Rama: A Case Study of the War
“It seems to me that with Sapoá or without it, this is going to be the corner where the last contras put up their final fight. This little place of ours has interested them too much to give it up easily.”
Manuel, a peasant from a cattle cooperative, is talking. We’re in El Rama, 187 miles from Managua on the road through Juigalpa, and only 60 miles from Bluefields, the port and Creole capital of Nicaragua's South Atlantic. Those 60 miles are traveled along the Rio Escondido, a stunning tropical landscape that took on another characteristic some years ago—extreme danger.
The route from Bluefields to the small inland river port of El Rama has been one of the most strategic routes in all pf Nicaragua during the long years of war. It is from here that "the iron"—arms for the Sandinista Popular Army—enters the country. Since the CIA and, by extension, the counterrevolutionaries, have advance information about these shipments, they mount an attack every time a boat carrying armaments arrives. But they have never been successful, since the army has a good protection system. The contras have taken their revenge on the passenger boat that makes the round trip to El Rama from Bluefields once a day; firing on the civilian passengers numerous times, and destroyed two of the boats.
El Rama is also strategic because all the food and other supplies that are later distributed throughout the Atlantic Coast come in through here. For all these reasons, the river between Bluefields and El Rama and the 105-mile stretch of highway between El Rama and Juigalpa make up one of the main arteries of the country.
Now that Esquipulas and Sapoá seem to be bringing the counterrevolutionary war to an end, after the army gave the contras a three-year pounding, what has happened in El Rama in these years could be of interest for a better understanding of the long and hard road that Nicaragua has begun to leave behind. "Some even say that the course of events here has been a sort of laboratory," says a Sandinista leader in the zone.
Desolate agricultural frontierEl Rama: The name of the town and surrounding zone comes from the indigenous people of Chibcha language roots who once populated the whole southeastern zone of Nicaragua and part of what is now Costa Rica. The Miskitus and the English buccaneers decimated them several centuries ago, so that today only some 700 remain on the island of Rama Cay in Bluefields Bay and in a few communities further south. Only a couple of dozen Ramas can still speak their native language—the rest speak a variant of Creole English—and none live in or near their geographic namesake.
The population of the El Rama area, is only 50,000 people, mostly mestizo peasants who arrived from other zones since the 1960s, roughly 25 per square mile. (El Salvador, just over four times El Rama's 1,930-square-mile extension, has more than 5,000,000 inhabitants.) They have come from Chontales, Boaco, from the mountains that run down through the center of the country, and some have even worked their way over from the Pacific, when the expansion of cotton-growing pushed them off their tiny plots in Chinandega. Hacking footpaths through the hills, cutting down trees and leveling plots, they have made the agricultural frontier recede before them, until at El Rama, where three rivers—the Sikia, Escondido and Rama—flow together, the Nicaraguans of the Pacific came into contact with those of the Atlantic for the first time. As the peasant Manuel says:
“This is hard land. You can't even use fertilizers here, because ten months out of the year it rains buckets. You no more than throw the fertilizer on when a rainstorm comes and dissolves it, pushing it down into the roots where it dries the plant. Imagine! Here, even fertilizers are a problem! Or you bring in a tractor to grade the land and all it does is churn up the mud and get stuck. I heard not long ago that this is a good zone to plant rubber...”
El Rama is in Nicaragua's rainforest zone. US companies moved into this region, Nicaragua’s geographic center, from the Atlantic Coast during the 1950s to develop export crops of bananas, rubber and African palm. One of the revolution’s projects was to dedicate these lands to similar crops, which are especially productive in the humid tropics, only this time without the companies. In El Recreo, outside the town of El Rama, an experimental center is working with African palm, cacao and pijibayi—a very nutritious fruit of a different kind of palm. Still a dream, with no material base yet, is the project of returning to rubber. This time, though, instead of exporting it (and the profits), the rubber would be used to produce tires for national consumption. There is also interest in coconut palms for cooking oil. (Cooking oil in Nicaragua is now made from cottonseeds, but this crop is becoming less and less profitable.)
These projects would be complemented by another, already underway, of making Bluefields a major port, like Corinto in the Pacific, to expand the country's international trade through the Atlantic. The prospects are that international cargo would pass through the port of El Rama, too. Some has already begun to arrive—most recently 10,000 tires from Mexico. This was made possible after Nicaragua, together with a Dutch company, finished constructing a floating dock in El Rama last year, the first of its kind in Central America. The dock rises and falls with the current of the three rivers that come together at the port town, sometimes dangerously swollen with rains.
The conditions of the area demand nontraditional crops. Corn and beans, the basis of the Nicaraguan diet, are produced here at extremely high cost and with very low yields. The peasants continue planting them, but only with tremendous effort can they grow even enough for their own subsistence.
A full 85% of the area's population is peasant. And the rest, those who live in El Rama and other neighboring small towns, come close, since the "urban centers" contain very little that could be called urban. Besides, practically everyone, whether merchant, dockworker or teacher, has some little piece of land out in the nearby hills.
The great majority of the peasant families are poor that farm plots scattered widely over the zone's 96 subdivisions known as comarcas, roughly equivalent to a district. To pay a neighbor a visit means walking miles over hilly dirt roads and footpaths. This isolation explains much of what has happened since the triumph of the revolution. As a Sandinista leader explains:
“Listen, I've worked with poor peasants from Las Segovias [northwest, in Region I] and it's very different. There, almost all poor peasants have worked on some coffee hacienda—they know about work teams, foremen, bunkhouses, wages, getting in line for meals and such. The idea of organization and collaboration in work is part of their mentality now. Whereas here, the more isolated the peasant family is, the happier. You can imagine what happened when these peasants, displaced by the war, began to be organized into a cooperative: living in a house right next to another, being accountable, electing leaders, somebody getting on their case because they arrived late, suspicions that one person is pulling less weight than the others... Suddenly, they're surrounded by organization and rules! It's a complicated process, requiring a lot of patient work.”
Although located at the western edge of the Caribbean region, this zone is not touched by the autonomy issue, so near and so heated in Bluefields. There are no groups with pending ethnic demands in El Rama because there are no ethnic minorities. Nor do they share the historical demands of the coast mestizos, because they didn't live the history. For the coast people of Bluefields, on the other hand, the incorporation of these lands of the central Caribbean region into the autonomy process is a demand for historic geographical reasons, and because of the economic development the regional autonomy project presupposes. (Incorporation of the Spanish-speaking population from these lands, however, is of no greater interest to the coast people than to the peasants themselves.)
What truly interests the peasants of El Rama is the same thing that interests peasants of almost all Nicaragua: the sale price of their grains and cattle bank credits, and the guarantee of industrial inputs at affordable prices that permit them to continue cultivating land that, even if not very profitable, is beloved and is theirs.
How the contras began hereThe geographic dispersion characteristic of the zone was also a political and ideological dispersion during the Somoza dynasty. In the 1960s, when the highway from Juigalpa to El Rama was first opened, cattle raising took off. The peasants moved further into the tropical slopes of the agricultural frontier as the few estate holders of the zone moved in behind them, "acquiring" the lands the peasants had already cleared.
By the end of his reign, Somoza had two projects in the zone: a slaughterhouse for export of beef to Miami and a cement plant for export to Colombia. The machinery, now paralyzed, is a mute reminder of the recent past.
The Conservatives, well established in Juigalpa and throughout Boaco and Chontales, didn't put down many political roots in El Rama, even though it was so near. Nor did Somoza's National Guard have to show the ferocity of its repressive face here very often. There are areas in which the only face of the Somoza regime that the peasant knew was the local judge, more often corrupt than cruel.
Although the Sandinista guerrillas had a presence, and even camps, in the area—in Raicilla, Kisilala, Zaragoza—under the command of Luis Carrión, today a member of the FSLN National Directorate, this was only in the last years of the dictatorship. There are 40 peasants who are "historic collaborators" of the FSLN.
During the 1970s the Catholic Church was the structure that really began to organize the peasantry. Capuchin missionaries—almost all of them from the United States—accepted the challenge of this pastoral frontier and little by little wove together a network of deacons and delegates of the Word. They depended on these representatives to visit the most remote areas and assemble the Christians, teach the catechism, preach the scriptures and pave the way for the priest. Since, from the outset, these local pastoral agents also worked to improve the communities’ difficult living conditions, Christianity always had a natural link to the social aspect in this zone.
With the triumph of the revolution, the people initially pushed to organize themselves—for the literacy crusade, in the first cooperatives, new projects, new work. An old militia member recalls: “I went through El Rama on my way north to Santo Domingo, visiting all the militia units. The trip took almost a month, and it's true, there was a real boom of activity.”
As in other peasant zones of Nicaragua, the counterrevolution began early, but in those first years, 1979 and 1980, it had nothing to do with what would happen next, when Reagan moved into the White House. The counterrevolutionaries then were not even "contras"; they were just small armed bands made up of local ex-Somocista judges and politicians, and also delinquents and adventurers, that rustled cattle and assaulted the peasants. At times they were even joined by some who appeared to be Sandinistas, as the militia member admitted:
The worst case here was Nieves Hernández. He fought with the Sandinistas and latter took up arms against them. Some sort of resentment, it seems. Who knows what goes on inside some people. Nieves took some people with him, because a lot of people around here knew him. He turned into a contra, for God's sake! The last time I heard anybody talk about him was about a year and a half ago, but he hasn't appeared since. We don't know if he's in Costa Rica or maybe died in combat.”
These armed bands created problems in the countryside, particularly given the way the peasants were so spread out. But that still wasn't war. In its real sense, the war didn't begin until 1982-83, and even then it was ARDE [Democratic Revolutionary Alliance], with its bases in Costa Rica and Edén Pastora as its chief, that had the most ongoing presence in this zone. That lasted until the end of 1985, although in May of that year the FDN [Nicaraguan Democratic Forces] also began to operate in the zone.
The contra rapThe contras of ARDE began to inch their way along, creating a peasant social base with four arguments. The one they used most was about the supply limitations. "Before there was sugar for the people, now there isn't any." Or, "Before there were boots, now you can't get a pair for love or money." Like that. The scarcity of all these products was a permanent refrain for the contras when they began to appear in the area.
Naturally their facts were true, given the rupturing of the traditional Somocista structures of commerce and distribution in the countryside as well as in the cities, and the fact that the revolution had not yet created alternatives. This brought problems throughout the peasant supply chain of basic foodstuffs like sugar and laundry soap, and also of vital manufactured products for rural work: rubber boots, machetes, files, etc. A peasant explains:
“Look, any peasant family can go through four pairs of rubber boots in each productive cycle. The man works, the woman works. Or at least she milks the cow. An 8- or 10-year-old kid will work. And going through all that mud barefoot, just to get a stake jammed up your foot, no way! In the Pacific you can work with scuff-alongs. You take an old tire, and snip, snip, you've got yourself a pair of scuff-alongs. But here, with these rains? There were real problems with boots, with machetes. There just weren't any, no matter how hard you looked. There were so many problems... everything was going to hell.”
And a government official adds: “The truth is that supplies have always been less than the demand for them. Even now. We would need 32,000 pairs of boots for the 8,000 families of this zone. This is about the quantity we have, but for the whole damned region! That's still true today; despite all our advances; it's still not enough. Sometimes, sure, donations come to us, but even then we have headaches. Not long ago some rubber boots arrived from I don't know where, but it seems that they were mining boots because they had a piece of iron in the toe part, and another along the shin bone. In the end we gave them to the militia members, who could make better use of them.”
The contras tried to convince the peasants that the scarcity of basic products was a reason to make war—at the same time that the war was making it even more difficult to improve supplies and lessen the scarcities. For the peasants, who had to haul their surplus harvest out on difficult roads, which were becoming conflictive and dangerous on top of everything else, it started looking like the better part of valor not to produce anything for sale: “Go 80 kilometers on the back of a mule through mud up to its belly just to sell a hundred-pound sack of beans? Like Hell!”
There were other problems, too—the disorganized state organizations, and the limitations of the zone itself. As a state official recounts: “Now it's a whole other ball game, because in 1986 we were finally able to build a warehouse in El Rama that can store some 600,000 pounds of food to supply the zone. But before! With all the transportation problems we had then, we had to go all the way to Santo Tomás [80 miles] to get the supplies. There was tremendous instability—no vehicle to bring it in until tomorrow, then not tomorrow either. And of course the warehouse in Santo Tomás had its own programming, because it had to supply three areas. So if you didn't get there on time, there were snarl-ups and you lost your supplies. It was a nasty situation.”
A second constant argument the contras used on the peasants was that Sandinistas equal atheist communists. You can still hear it on the counterrevolutionary radio program, "The Voice of Sandino," that broadcasts out of Costa Rica, as well as in the direct work the contras do with the population. In this zone they have to try to work directly, because there aren't many radios around—and the few there are don't have batteries.
“The contras would say to us: 'These bastards are communists, they don't believe in God; they're going to take your land away from you! Can't you see that before you had sugar, and now they've taken it away? They're going to take everything away from you because they don't believe in God.'”
ARDE moved mainly in small groups, real guerrilla-style, giving a lot of importance to political-ideological work, as one Sandinista admitted: “Not all of them did this political work well; there were some 'Ardes' whose style was rejected by the peasants. A Guardia style, right? Pure Guardia. But others.... Listen, the contras kidnapped a teacher from Monte Rosa, by the name of Argueta, and when he managed to get loose, he explained to us the political work that they made him do with the peasantry—by force, of course, because if not, he would have flown away earlier. It was neat work.”
A third basic argument to capture peasant support was the always-imminent counterrevolutionary triumph. In 1983 they were going to win. In 1984 they were at the doors to Managua. In 1985 they were still saying the same thing. But by then no one believed them.
They didn't get to Managua. They never even got to El Rama. For more than seven years the people of that strategic site and those of so many other areas of Nicaragua have successfully resisted this war—the one that Pentagon strategists call "low intensity" even though it has caused such high-intensity suffering.
If they didn't get to Managua, they did, however, succeed in involving some peasant sectors from this zone in their project. As in other places around the country, they did it one of two ways: either incorporating the peasants into their troops full time, or integrating them into the district structures as messengers, armed messengers, informants, area coordinators, etc.
In these isolated mountains, where the presence and the benefits of the revolution had barely begun to be felt, where few things had yet begun to change in the first two or three revolutionary years, the counterrevolutionary arguments caught on. And the main argument that "caught on" was the fourth and most important one: survival.
The contras' "social base"Walking through these hills, one can better understand the main argument, the reason a peasant "turns into" a contra. To say no to armed men who have come up a solitary mountain road, where the nearest house is a couple of miles away, is to play with your life. Peasant mentality, which always tends to be "neutral" in any conflict outside their normal situations, goes into effect. A now-old peasant insisted on this point: “Put yourself in my place. I mean, alone, in the mountains, right? Put yourself in my place.”
But collaboration or enrollment has not always meant survival. By 1984, when peasant communities had to be evacuated from some of the conflictive spots—Cerro Negro, El Puntiagudo, Boca de Plata, El Embudo, El Pavón—to leave them uninhabited and free only for military combat, ARDE had already carried off some 100 families from Wana Creek, which they kept in an authentic system of slavery for almost two years. These peasants planted food for the contras and their women were rotated among the troops. A militia member from one of the cooperatives recalls:
“When all these people were finally freed, among them old people, women and children, a whole bunch of them had to be treated for venereal diseases, for tuberculosis and other problems. I remember one woman who /ihad stepped on a stake a long time earlier, and there her foot was, all rotted. The contras only gave them parboiled rice to eat. They were nothing more than slaves. When they were freed, they all went off to their places of origin, back to their family members. Some went first to work in cooperatives, but since we have self-defense there and have learned how to defend ourselves with weapons when we hear 'Here come the contras!' these people were scared to death! I mean, after being with the contras, they were terrorized!”
In May 1985, the Sandinista army carried out "Operation Sovereignty" to clean out the ARDE camps along the Rio San Juan, on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. That began the decomposition and later breaking up of this counterrevolutionary group, which culminated a year later with Edén Pastora declaring publicly that he was abandoning the struggle because "we’re never going to beat the Sandinistas."
But the end of ARDE was not the end of the war for this area. The armed group that the US government has always favored—the FDN—made an effort to absorb as many of the dispersed ARDE forces as it could grab. With bases in Honduras and led by Somoza ex-National Guardsmen, the FDN had begun to operate around El Rama starting in May 1985, transferring armed groups from the northern and central zones of the country to this strategic peasant area. "So the FDN went to relieve ARDE," we asked a Sandinista official, "to substitute for it when Pastora's people went into decline?"
It wasn't quite so simple, was his reply: “It's true that with the FDN the war changed some. ARDE always functioned in a more irregular style of war, and the FDN operates with large and medium-sized groups, bigger than ARDE. But don't think that these Guardias are dumb and just came because 'those poor guys from ARDE, they're getting kicked out and we're going to help them.' No, the CIA isn't stupid either. Within the gringo plan, this highway, El Rama, its port, Bluefields, all this whole stretch here has been strategically important. You control El Rama and you can blow up bridges and control the whole highway. You have the river, you have everything. They know perfectly well how strategic all this is. That's why the FDN came.”
The FDN also recruited peasants for its troops, and as collaborators and messengers in the districts. One peasant described a typical method for this recruitment: “The contras go by the house of a peasant and say to him: 'Hey man, you're going to go take us to such-and-such a place.' It isn't something the peasant can choose to do or not. He has to go. Then they say, 'Here, carry this pack.' Later they pass again and say to him: 'Look, the piricuacos [a deprecatory name the contras use to refer to the army soldiers] have seen you with us, they even saw you carrying a pack. So when they come by next time, they're going to really work you over. You don't have any other choice but to go with us.' And the peasant, frightened, gets involved.
It also happens that when one member of the family is compromised like that, the whole family gets involved one way or another: “Let's take the case of a man who collaborates with them. When the contras order him to go to a certain place and 'see if the piricuacos are there,' the man is likely to start thinking, 'Maybe it'll be less dangerous if I send my grandfather. Or my woman, with her little knapsack, like she was going to town sick. Or the kid.' And he sends them. The reality is that by touching one person the whole family gets dragged in.
There have also been crueler, more direct methods of commitment: “The contras go by on the lookout for a peasant. By force they oblige him to slit someone's throat, somebody they want to do away with. The ones they make do such things are the ones who haven't been too solid in giving them help in the past. And afterward, once he's done it, he has to continue with them, he isn't left any other choice. So he goes digging his grave deeper and deeper. And each time he has less chance of getting out of it.”
In this process, the contras have had to make people into assassins, as a way of assuring "fidelity." The contras also formed messenger networks in the different areas to maintain the constant pressure. One reliable messenger is always there, using food to pressure the rest to collaborate. He knows the community, knows which family has young boys who are going into military service, which peasant is leaving the area and why. And if a peasant deserts the contras, they pass the word to the messenger and he kills him. The permanent pressure and the cruelest repression is how they keep up the anxiety level. They were able to commit many peasants through this structure of "messengers."
Sandinista response on all frontsBy the end of 1985 the course of the war began to change in favor of the Sandinistas. The revolution's strategic combination of bold military, political and socioeconomic initiatives turned around the situation that had prevailed in 1983-84, when the counterrevolution had certain advantages.
In El Rama the first thing the Sandinistas did was send the military into the zones that had been "worked" by the counterrevolution to recover territory and maintain a much more stable military presence. There had always been a Sandinista military presence, but it was irregular before, as was that of the ARDE counterrevolutionaries. Nor had it been possible to make up for the lack of a stable military presence with self-defense systems from the areas themselves. One little house here, another there...where could enough cadres come from to organize peasant self-defense structures in 96 such areas, some with only 30 families? Give them some rifles and when 200 contras pass by that's the end of that.
During that period the peasants, isolated in their mountain solitude, had seen armed men coming and didn't know if they were Sandinistas or contras. To protect themselves, they had collaborated with whoever demanded it. That was the situation of the dispersed families, but it was not quite so bad in the cooperatives. An experienced militia member explained:
“Even if self-defense couldn't be organized in the districts, it was organized in the 32 cooperatives created in the zone, which are made up of some 700 families who have 20,000 acres of land. Despite the limited number of arms we've been able to give to the peasants in cooperatives, just arming them has been an important complement to the permanent military presence.”
After 1985, Permanent Territorial Companies, known as "Copetes" were established. There are currently three in the zone: one in Wapí, another in El Rama and the third in Esperanza, and they have successfully confronted the contras. An Operational Support Base (BAO) has also been installed, made up of reservists.
A decisive additional factor becoming ever clearer to the population itself was the process of decomposition within the contras. Each time a contra was captured or turned himself in, a public event was organized in which the person directly explained to the population how life was with the contras, what they did, how they did it, etc. One Sandinista told us:
“With the permanent presence of the army, some things changed right away. One example is Aguas Calientes, some 20 miles northeast of El Rama, a very isolated place. At the time of the triumph, a delegate of the Word from there began to work with us—a peasant I envied for his ability to get the state to do things. He was a real take-charge type, very loved by the community, this chubby little guy Bartolo. Okay, so ARDE began to work on him. And he collaborated with them. Since we had an unstable presence, he didn't have any other choice. When we recovered that territory and put a permanent unit in there, 47 members of the collaborator network gave themselves up and Bartolo came back to us. In February 1986 we put him in charge of calling all the peasants together, and he organized a ‘concentration,’ as he called it, in which no less than 500 peasants showed up.”
To take away the social base that the counterrevolution had gained by force or by attraction, the revolution initiated what it calls a "movement of base-level political discussion," where the community's main needs and concerns are discussed. For example, the people from the northern part of the zone requested that a 32-kilometer road from El Rama to Sapí be constructed. After the discussion, they formed a committee to take responsibility for the project, and each family pledged one cow to cover the cost of the road. "We won't leave it only to the government to complete the project. We'll give the cows and also our own time to see that the work gets done," was the unanimous sentiment. The town of Aguas Caliente, instead of asking for a new road, requested that a 35-kilometer stretch of dry-season road in bad condition be repaired. Due to economic constraints, completion of these projects is still pending.
The government also began to organize district committees, being very flexible about accepting local leaders. A Sandinista explains the process: “Our criterion is this: a leader is any peasant who motivates people. It might be someone who's collaborating with the contra, or who has in the past; it could be a religious leader, or whatever. Motivating the community is what counts, it's what makes a person a leader.”
Another recalls the case of an evangelical leader from north of El Rama, from the Brothers in Christ church: “In the workshops and meetings, this guy really stood out. You should have seen how he dominated the meetings, putting forward viewpoints very different from ours. And we kept assuring him, 'You see? What we're interested in is that you discuss the community's problems, not that you agree with us.'”
When we asked after this pastor, to go visit him, we were told that the contras had killed him in Correntada Larga; they had slit his throat.
In any case, using such local leaders, the Sandinistas began organizing territorial workshops to discuss a whole range of topics, everything from the prices of peasant products to touchy subjects like the military draft or religious themes. And the leaders of these workshops began holding assemblies among themselves every six months. All these open discussions, in which everyone can—and does—speak, have given the peasants back their confidence in the revolution.
But it wasn't just the peasant organizations that did this. Another key factor was the reorganization of the state and FSLN party structures, the creation of new zonal mechanisms to make them more responsive at the base level. Local people, who know the terrain and their people better, were integrated into these zonal power structures.
And finally, added a Sandinista: “Another very basic thing has been the discussions within the party itself. In the midst of the war some of us had begun to think things like, 'The people from Presillitas are contras,' or 'those from Aguas Calientes are contras,' or, even more generally, 'all these peasants are contras.' It's been a long struggle for us to understand the counterrevolutionary phenomenon better—and to understand the revolution better, too, because the two things go together.”
As part of this campaign to regain peasant support, the Sandinistas also began to tackle the land problem. In this zone, the revolution had not had to expropriate many farms; because the peasants were the pioneers in this agricultural frontier, almost all of them have their own small plots of land in the mountains. For example, a ranch hand on somebody else's big spread might also own some 50 to 70 acres further out. The problem is that the war forced the majority of these peasants to abandon their farms up in the mountains and move down to the outskirts of nearby towns. In 1986, lands were given to all these people displaced by the war.
In effect, the war brought to an end the world these peasants knew, uprooting them from their traditional way of life and seriously affecting their production system: “Normally, any little house in the mountains would have, let's say, seven pigs. When 200 contras passed through, you could kiss those pigs goodbye. Or you’d go to a lot of trouble to grow a little field of sugar cane to have something sweet; but a 100 contras with a sweet tooth would sweep down and there'd go most of your cane! The contras have never concerned themselves with our production problems. They just come and order us around: 'Come with us,' 'Go get me a cow.' And if you don't want to: 'I said go kill it, now!'”
On the contrary, giving top importance to protecting and improving peasant production was precisely a Sandinista strategy. Many communities had come to a standstill because of the war, so they had no credit; the Sandinistas responded by extending credit to them. They also opened schools that had been closed and began teacher training for young people from the communities who already had a fifth or sixth grade education. Others were trained to be community health leaders.
In the communities, they're referred to as “comprehensive visits,” and they're just that: When the Sandinista troops comb through an area that might include eight or ten communities to recover the surrounding terrain, a doctor will come along to vaccinate the children and give the adults anti-malaria pills (there's a lot of malaria in the region). A bank technician usually goes along, too, to explain the credit system, as does a Ministry of Internal Commerce official, to learn more about the accumulated problems of supply and distribution. And when possible, clothing is brought to donate to the neediest families. Even though it's impossible to establish a permanent presence in these dispersed villages in the zone, it has become possible to have at least an occasional presence, which has had a positive impact for the revolution.
The goal of all these initiatives has been to at least gain back the confidence of the peasants, and to make some advances in winning them over. There is evidence that with the accumulation of experiences, the peasants are learning to distinguish the contras' project from that of the revolution in practical terms. They have now witnessed years of material efforts by the government to resolve their problems, and the concreteness of this effort has been the best argument.
“Do they now see the contras as a defeated force?” we asked.
They see them as a project that still exists, because some contras are still here. But, as a project with a future? No, not anymore, and even less after Esquipulas and Sapoá. The contras signify war and what people want is peace.
The thorniest issue: Military serviceThe implementation of the draft (Patriotic Military Service, or "SMP") at the beginning of 1984 was one of the most important factors contributing to the Sandinista victory over the counterrevolutionary forces. The SMP involved the drafting of all young men between the ages of 18 and 25 into the army. While this is hard on any family, it's a particular kind of hardship on a family that lives off the land, as one peasant points out: “It's been difficult, you see, because a peasant lives by what he can produce from the land. And with the scarcity of labor in the countryside, we're affected every time they draft an able-bodied young man.”
Trying to implement military service without adversely affecting agricultural production in these areas has been an ongoing and difficult contradiction. At the end of 1986 it was exacerbated even more by the initiation of Reserve Military Service for all males between 25 and 40 years old. Both because of the problems it causes the peasants, and because the men are familiar with their own terrain and can defend it better, the peasants now complete their 4- to 6-month reserve duty in their own area rather than being sent elsewhere.
Voluntary incorporation into the militias was promoted in this zone initially, but in 1986 the reserve law was implemented nationally. We asked a local Sandinista representative what the relative advantages of the reserve law were over the voluntary militias.
“We came to realize that the former is better in a zone like this one, where the contra units operate and make us continually afraid that they'll kill our whole family. Even though many of us would join up voluntarily, it's easier on us when it's a law. Why? When a contra comes up to you and threatens, 'Hey, you son of a bitch, you're going around with the piricuacos!' if you're in the reserves you can say, 'I can't help it, I'm just obeying the law.' Or your family can say it about you, if they come to the house. It gives you a certain space, right? Here in these zones, a peasant can't afford to be too out front about what he's doing or thinking.
Esquipulas II: The great hopeIn Central America, Esquipulas II was more than a historic political event or a very important document committing the region's governments for Nicaragua—and perhaps only for Nicaragua. It was a popular movement, the awakening of a great hope among the people all across the country.
This was no less true in El Rama. The expectations that Esquipulas brought are still there, more than 10 months after its signing. In fact, they're even stronger now, with the Sapoá agreements that grew out of Esquipulas.
From the very first moment, the peasants' greatest dream was to return to their piece of land in the mountains. This was even true among those working in cooperatives, and is most cherished of all by those who have been recently resettled after being displaced.
For the Sandinistas, however, it's a real worry. They have spent so many years trying to cope with all the disadvantages of having the peasants scattered around the mountains, and have experienced the advantages of having agricultural production organized in cooperatives. It's a problem that will have to be dealt with when the peace promised by Esquipulas II arrives.
In the first 90 days after the signing of the Esquipulas II agreement, 35 contras gave up their weapons and took amnesty. It seems like a small number for an area in the thick of the war, we remarked to a member of the Ministry of the Interior in the zone.
“You're right, it's not many, and the majority of those who deserted their ranks weren't active anyway. They just chose the moment to formalize their situation. So, why is that? The messengers were given the order by the contra commanders that if they saw any deserters, they should make them "pay the price." So any contra who wants to give it all up has two problems: he has to figure out how to get away in the first place, and then later to make sure not to get hunted down by the messengers. The contra chiefs helped out, too. They shaved the head of any fighter they thought was wavering. So any bald guy out on his own who got seen by a messenger was a dead man!
Nonetheless, there was an active campaign to spread information about Esquipulas II in the countryside. Pastors, priests, delegates of the Word, deacons, all the forces of the church actively participated in the campaign aimed at persuading the contra soldiers to put down their arms and take amnesty. In El Rama, as in many other places around the country, the parish priest was the coordinator of the Peace Commission that was created.
One day a contra chief called on a delegate of the Word who was working for peace, and said to him: "Look, man, we know that you're going around trying to get our guys to lay down their arms. That's fine. You just go right on doing that work, but with a new twist: When you see a combatant who you think is showing symptoms of wanting to desert, you come and tell us about it, right?" They were proposing that he become a kind of double agent who would do their work of fingering potential deserters so they could then go kill him first.
Another big hope brought by Esquipulas II and Sapoá, as the Sandinistas are well aware, was an end to military service.
“The thing is that Nicaragua has never had a draft before, in all of its history. We finally had to introduce it in 1984, when the war got going strong. Now, with Esquipulas, we're explaining to people that military service is not the same in times of peace and times of war; that here in Poza Redonda, for example, if we have 100 professional soldiers, why would we need a draft? We're talking to the people about all of this.
With so many new situations being glimpsed behind Esquipulas, rumors naturally began to abound. Some of the peasants who had received land under the agrarian reform, for example, feared that with the changes, their land would be taken away from them.
Some of the peasants who had been prisoners because of counterrevolutionary activity and were pardoned as part of the amnesty under the Esquipulas II agreements found a new place to live and start over. Those who have returned to their old zones are not permitted to go back to the isolated mountains right now. We discussed this with the FSLN political representative:
2There's always the risk that they'll fall in with the contras again, whether they want to or not. These years have been a school of hard knocks for us. Among the lessons we've learned is that the poor and slightly more well-off peasants are a strategic social base for the revolution, yet to survive, many of them were obliged to get involved with the counterrevolution. We don't want this to be repeated. The revolution was made for these peasants and we're trying to organize and win over all those who have not been responsible for killings.”
And those who have been guilty of such crimes?
“We always conduct an investigation to see how committed they were; to see if they were involved in assassinations. It's important that we not give the same treatment to someone who was in 20 or 30 combats as we give to someone who took tortillas to the contras. When we realize that a peasant was involved to survive, we tell him, 'Okay, look, we know you were collaborating, But we also know you didn't want to, that what you want is to plant your field, to work the land and live in peace. Now, since you got involved with them, the revolution cannot simply pardon you for these activities; you have a political debt to pay, which you have the capacity and the obligation to pay by doing your military service.' And we give him a rifle.
“There are also those who have to appear before the courts to answer for their crimes. The people in the communities understand this perfectly well; they know exactly who was involved and who did what. Those who are tried, and it's seen that they have done things that...well, things that just can't be accepted, then they go to jail. But we understand it and present it as a reeducation process. We explain the new penitentiary system to the family very carefully, because we don't want to establish any similarity in their minds with Somoza's jails. We also give support to the family so they can go visit the prisoner. They're little things, we know, but they help.”
With Esquipulas, and more recently with Sapoá, peace, which is what the people here and everywhere in Nicaragua want more than anything, seems to be just around the corner. But in Rama, everybody understood right away that the war would go on as long as the Reagan Administration did not definitively renounce the war. They also understand that his "freedom fighters" have been defeated militarily and are a project "with no future," as the peasants have begun to say.
In October 1987, after the Esquipulas II peace process was well underway, the contras tried to take the little towns along the Juigalpa-El Rama road. Their main goal was to blow up a number of important bridges, including the strategic one at Muelle de los Bueyes, before you get to El Rama. In the bloody battles, the contras suffered a lot of casualties, and when the smoke cleared, the bridges were still intact.
“We captured 70 pounds of explosives that were to be used to blow up the Muelle bridge. At the end of the year, up around Las Breñas, we got 300 pounds more. Blowing up bridges, that was their thing.”
Since "Here comes peace" clashed so quickly with "The war goes on," the Esquipulas process didn't demobilize the Sandinistas. Everyone had to keep guarding the hills, with their rifles at the ready day after day. Around here, nobody even celebrated Christmas. Guard duty had to be maintained even Christmas night.
But Sapoá was something else again. Sapoá, among other things, has been a seriously demobilizing factor—but for the contras, not for the Sandinistas. And it continues being that, two months after the peace accords were signed, as an army officer happily notes: “This past Easter week was the first time since the war began that the rivers around here were filled with people swimming, all peaceful and happy. Just a short while ago you wouldn't have seen this; it seems almost unreal. Even some contras came around to swim in some of the swimming holes, and they waved at us!”
Sapoá has raised the hope of Esquipulas by a factor of 100. After Sapoá, even the conversations in the field with the contras that started with Esquipulas have multiplied. And there's a lot of optimism now, based on the results of the efforts to convince them to lay down their arms and rejoin civil life. For the old militia member, the logic is simple: “If we, who are winning the war, are fed up with fighting, how could the contras not be sick of it?”
Since Sapoá, some contras have simply returned to their districts and their peasant life without even presenting themselves to the authorities. What matters is not so much whether they go through the proper channels, but rather that there be peace. The contras, whether they've laid down their weapons or not, can't escape this tremendous desire for peace, "to be able to work in peace" and "so that no more young men have to die."
Heading back to Juigalpa, we leave behind the towns the contras tried to take in October 1987, when they suffered one of their last and most resounding military defeats. During the cease-fire this road has tasted peace, a flavor that's not easily forgotten. Even further back, at the end of the road, is impoverished and strategic El Rama, one of the most sought-after pieces of land in the US military strategy, and one that resisted being taken over throughout all the stages of this long, "low-intensity" war. Perhaps, when the war ends, El Rama's history will not appear in the great war chronicles, but it has been a bastion nonetheless. On a rock at the side of the road, a child has written with charcoal, "Ya no pasarán"—Now they won't pass here. Peace feels closer.