Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 24 | Junio 1983




Since May Río San Juan, one of the most impoverished, uninhabited and isolated regions of Nicaragua, has become the scene of armed confrontations. What are the political and socio-economic conditions in Río San Juan? What experience of the revolution doe the Nicaraguans who live there have?

Envío team

Rio San Juan, one of the most impoverished, sparsely populated and isolated regions in Nicaragua has become the scene of fighting in the last month. Operating out of camps in Costa Rica, Eden Pastora's followers have begun their attacks in Rio San Juan, a province sharing a 300-kilometer border with Costa Rica.

"What are the social, economic and political conditions in Rio San Juan? How have the people experienced the revolution there? What are the objectives of the counterrevolution, and how are they operating in Rio San Juan? How has the revolution responded to the situation, and what are projections for the future? Institute staff visited Rio San Juan in the last week of May to investigate these questions.


in the beginning of the century, Rio San Juan had more potential for economic growth than any other region in the country. President Zelaya planned to develop banana, lumber and mining there and to build a railroad connecting Rio San Juan with the rest of the country. When Zelaya was removed from the presidency, these plans were forgotten, as was the region as a whole. From 1920 to 1936, U.S. companies moved into the region exploiting banana, rubber and lumber. When the lumber ran out and plagues affected both the banana and rubber crop, the companies moved out, leaving no signs of development behind.

In the 1950's and 60's Nicaragua's two largest economic groups, the Somozas and Pellas, invested in cattle raising and rice production in the region.

While on a national level, agricultural production was subordinated to the development of industry, and production came second to commercial and financial activity, in Rio San Juan, capital was only invested in the farms of the Somoza and Pellas groups. There was no investment in marketing the crops of the campesinos. There was no banking system. Capital was not invested in building roads or other infrastructure. As the landowners did not live in the region, capital was not invested in the installation of water systems, electricity or other basic services.

During the Somoza dictatorship, Rio San Juan also marked an agricultural frontier. Somoza granted land parcels in Rio San Juan and Nueva Guinea to campesinos who had been displaced from their land in the Pacific due to the expansion of cotton production. In this way, Somoza eased the tensions between the export-producing class and the campesinos and limited the possibilities of revolt.

During the 1970's political activity was concentrated in the Islands of Solentiname, where a youth group was very active. The Solentiname youth attempted to spread their movement to other parts of the region, but these efforts came to an end with the increasing repression and their own integration in the southern front. The San Carlos military post was assaulted both in October 1977 and during the final insurrection. While there was not a popular uprising in the region, the Sandinistas did develop a logistical network there.


Rio San Juan, Nicaragua's third largest province, has approximately 35,000 inhabitants and is the most sparsely populated region in the country. The province is divided into six municipalities: San Carlos, Morrito, San Miguelito, El Almendro, El Castillo and San Juan del Norte.

At the time of the triumph, Rio San Juan had the highest illiteracy (96%) and child mortality rate in the country, potable water systems were limited or non existent, and only two municipalities had electricity.

Nicaraguan radio and television could not be picked up and there were no telephones. During 10 months of the year, there was no road connecting Rio San Juan with the rest of the country.

Within Rio San Juan, there was not one kilometer of year-round road. There were no urban paved roads, sewage disposal systems, recreation facilities, banks nor gas stations. There was one doctor, few teachers and no high schools.

San Carlos, capital of the province, stands where the river and Lake Nicaragua meet. Like all ports, it is the scene of trading activity. Yet in San Carlos, there was no market. "Time was held back there. San Carlos was Macondo," said one economist in reference to Garcia Marquez's "100 Years of Solitude."


If you ask someone from Rio San Juan what has changed with the revolution, they will usually begin to tell you about the roads that are being constructed. The Nicaraguan government immediately constructed 45 kilometers of year-round road, bringing remote communities into contact with larger towns. This motivated the population to migrate. For instance, when the government constructed a 17-kilometer road between the town of La Azucena and Los Chiles, this rural community grew from 3 houses to a community with almost 1,000 inhabitants. The government also began to construct a road from Acoyapa, Chontales, to San Carlos, thereby bringing to an end a long period of isolation. New boats reduced the trip across Lake Nicaragua from Grenada to San Carlos from 16 hours to 6 hours.

In Rio San Juan, there are now telephones, a local radio station and a television repeater. Three additional municipalities now have electricity. Health services have been expanded with 12 doctors, 11 new health clinics and a health center. There is wide participation in the health campaigns. Illiteracy was reduced from 96% to 32% in the national literacy campaign. Student enrollment more than doubled from 2,584 in 1976 to 6,511 in 1981. An agricultural institute was recently opened, and recreation facilities have been installed.

The local government's 1983 investment plan includes improvements in transportation, road construction and maintenance, potable water and electricity, education, health and cultural facilities, and a market in San Carlos.

The community has participated to some degree in both defining the priorities and in the actual work involved in bringing about these achievements. Local government officials say they foresee an increase in participation as the community organizations become stronger.


Campesinos constitute approximately 70% of Rio San Juan's population and have just begun to form a power base through UNAG and the cooperative movement. Sinforiano Caceres, regional director of UNAG, stated: "UNAG caught on quickly with the campesinos because there was already the demand for an organization and the campesinos had seen improvements brought about by the revolution such as credit, technical assistance and storage bins." Through the Agrarian Reform program, 3,628 hectares were distributed to 6 cooperatives and 56 families, benefiting approximately 900 persons in 1982. Campesinos who settled on government-owned land were not removed. This became a positive factor in government campesino relations.

Agricultural and Agrarian Reform Director in the region, Horacio Cuadra, stated: "Our principal activity in the upcoming years will be to develop a strong cooperative movement, closely tied to the government agricultural businesses, which will provide both technology and technical assistance to the cooperatives."

Government businesses play a significant role in the region. At the time of the triumph, the government confiscated Somoza's land (40% of total farming land) and also received a significant donation from other land owners. Today the government sector has 45% of the farming land. Producers with less than 500 manzanas have 48% and producers with more than 500 manzanas have 7%.


While there have been significant improvements in the last three years, local government officials say the revolution has done virtually nothing in comparison with what needs to be done in the region. The obstacles are great. The lack of communication and transportation limits what can be done and slows down the process of change. The dispersion of the population makes it difficult to arrive with social services. While on a regional level the changes are obvious, many remote rural communities have experienced more continuity than change in the last few years. Technical and administrative positions have to be filled with people from other regions. The revolution's achievements have created new expectations faster than these can be met, and the war against Nicaragua limits the funds which are available for investment in the region.

The revolution has not yet been able to solve two of the most sensitive problems of the campesinos: the supply of basic food products and the marketing of the harvest. In 1983 there were serious shortages of soap and cooking oil and in the first few months the government wholesaler, ENABAS, paid many campesinos with IOU cards rather than cash.

Since the victory in 1979, cooking oil, soap and sugar have arrived to many remote areas for the first time in history, and ENABAS pays higher than it sells for basic grains. Though this is recognized by many, the shortages and IOU cards still are a source of discontent. While UNAG is organizing campesinos to participate in the solution to these problems, the counterrevolution attempts to maximize shortages, blaming them on the number of internationalists in the country or citing these examples as proof that the Sandinistas have betrayed the people.


What circumstances or shared histories affect the political attitudes of people in Rio San Juan? Xavier Alvarez, Sandinista political coordinator in the region, pointed to two historical factors. Rio San Juan did not experience the people's insurrection, which in other parts of the country offered a rich experience in organizational methods, designated the people as the authors of the revolution, and exposed the brutal nature of the dictatorship. In this sense, community and campesino organization face a greater challenge here than in other parts of the country.

Yet those campesinos who migrated from the Pacific do have a history of campesino movements and struggles for the land which enable them to identify with the revolution and to participate in the organizations.

Religion has a powerful influence over the campesino of the region. A sociologist who works in the remote communities of San Miguel, Morrito and El Almendro says that the vast majority have no real roots or sense of identity in the region. Their traditions are somewhere else with the land they left behind. They tend to look for identity and cohesion, something which can be found in religion. The Catholic church was the first to arrive in the region.

The priest comes to fill an important social role in the community. The living conditions of the campesino are precarious so he/she tends to look for security. The harvest and survival are dependent upon outside forces, which are attributed to a superior being. The priest is the mediator with these forces, and the campesino has the chance to participate in these rites. Because of the campesino's psychological make up, the priest assumes an enormous power and, as regards the revolution, can influence his parishioners either for or against.


Sharing a 300-kilometer border with Costa Rica, Rio San Juan has become the scene of military, political and propaganda activity of Eden Pastora and the "Revolutionary Democratic Alliance" (ARDE), formed by Pastora, Alfonso Robelo and Brooklyn Rivera.

The Contras initiated military attacks in Rio San Juan in mid April of this year. Since then, they have carried out approximately 20 military actions, including ambushes against army patrols, campesinos and foreign journalists and attacks against border posts and rural communities. While these attacks have caused considerable suffering, they do not represent a significant military offensive. ARDE's military activity contrasts sharply with its propaganda, which claims to have taken towns, to have caused substantial losses to the Nicaraguan army and to be within days of a victory.

In addition to the camps in Costa Rica, there are approximately 300 armed men in Rio San Juan, primarily in La Azucena, who are divided into groups of 120. Nicaraguan Captain Bosco Centeno explained that "the strategy of the Contras at this stage is to create a logistical base and messenger system which would later enable them to supply bands which would penetrate into Nueva Guinea”.

According to Centeno, ARDE is counting on the U.S. to overthrow the Sandinistas. In this event they hope to appear as a political military force which could take power, a viable alternative to the Sandinistas or the national guard. ARDE's military strategy, then, is not designed to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, but rather to establish themselves as a political military organization within Nicaragua.


In April, it became evident that the area of Contra penetration, La Azucena, corresponded to an area where Timoteo Merino, a Spanish priest, had developed his pastoral work since 1978. In addition, Delegates of the Word close to Father Merino surfaced as leaders of the Contra bands.

On May 11, the Nicaraguan government revoked the residency of Timoteo Merino. The Nicaraguan bishops were visiting the Vatican at that time. In statements to the press, the bishops said the accusations were not based on facts and were part of a premeditated plan to undo the work of the church within the zone.

Did Timoteo Merino recruit campesinos for ARDE? Campesinos in the valley of La Azucena and refugees from the outlying communities told Institute staff that through subtle and selective means, Father Merino did convince campesinos to go over to ARDE.

Yet for a moment let's put this question aside and look at the activities of Father Merino. Over the years, Merino organized a network of Christian communities which gave him a substantial power base in the region. He increasingly began to distance his communities from the revolution and to present them as an alternative to the mass organizations. Francisco Tercero, campesino leader who lived with Timoteo during several months, said that Merino first began to express his doubts concerning the revolution in 1980. During the last two years, he continued to express suspicion towards the revolution and to nurture fears that the revolution wanted to take away the people's faith. He developed an organizational network that was separate from the revolution and distrustful of it.

Juan Bayardez, campesino leader in La Azucena, said that Merino appointed Delegates of the Word who had formed ties to Somoza's party and to the National Guard, including an ex National Guard member who had recently been released.

When ARDE began to work in the region, it did not confront the revolution on political terms, nor did it offer an alternative social economic program. Rather the Contra presented itself as the guardian of the campesino's religion, family, land, and national traditions, which it claimed the revolution was trying to take away. Father Merino had already prepared the terrain and left an organizational structure.

In April it became evident that Merino’s Delegates of the Word were leading the Contra bands and that the organizational network developed by Merino was serving as a social base for the contra.


Because the Contra confronts the revolution on a religious psychological level rather than a political level, it has been able to recruit some people who were involved with the revolution.

Campesino leader Francisco Tercero commented, "It’s really sad to hear those who have gone with the Contra speak. They say they've taken up arms not for political reasons, but rather to defend their religion and to keep communism from coming to Nicaragua." In this way the Contra plays upon fears of what the revolution might do in the future.

UNAG leader Sinforiano Caceres said that the Contra has caused confusion among some members of UNAG. "There are some in the Contra camps in Costa Rica who still walk around with their UNAG card in their pocket and proudly consider themselves members. This shows the level of confusion. If they were truly opposed to the revolution, they would also be opposed to UNAG."


The radio station "Voice of Sandino" is one of ARDE's principal instruments of propaganda. Based in Costa Rica, the ARDE radio station can be picked up in the municipalities closest to the border. In addition its stories are often picked up by the Costa Rican radio stations. Traditionally, the population of Rio San Juan has listened to Costa Rican radio.

The "Voice of Sandino" uses revolutionary terminology and aims its propaganda at the Nicaraguan army and those groups which form the basis of the revolution. "Nicaraguan brothers and sisters, EPS compañeros, compañeros of the glorious militias, compañeros of the Sandinista police, proletarians, campesinos, professors, patriots, students and Nicaraguan youth. Luchar, Luchar, Luchar." The FSLN hymn from the struggle against Somoza begins to play.

The show usually includes declarations and interviews with Robelo and Pastora, ARDE soldiers; military reports; messages in Miskito; and music, hymns, marches and slogans. The radio plays revolutionary music from Latin America and uses the Sandinista slogan of "Free country or death." The radio attempts to personalize the war: Eden Pastora fights against the "nine traitors." The rest of the revolution can be saved. According to this simplistic scheme, the essence of Sandinismo can be recovered by eliminating the National Directorate and expelling the internationalists from Nicaragua.


The counterrevolution has been able to penetrate into Rio San Juan and gain a minimum social base in La Azucena. Yet after six weeks of military activity it has become evident that ARDE is a movement filled with contradictions which could eventually lead to its own destruction. Its military actions have already begun to come into conflict with its revolutionary rhetoric.

Pastora announced that his armed struggle would take full force on May 1. On May 1, ARDE kidnapped and cut the throats of 10 campesinos; among these were adult education teachers, UNAG leaders and Delegates of the Word. ARDE also ambushed and killed three campesinos on their way to the May 1st activities and two members of the Ministry of the Interior on the San Juan River. The "liberation war” had a questionable beginning.

During the last week of May, there were demonstrations four days in a row in San Carlos as the bodies of reservists who died in combat were returned. The reservists were young committed people, in some cases leaders in their schools, such as Marlon Zelaya, 24-year old architecture student and political coordinator of the National University (UNAN). "How can this Pastora say he is fighting for the people when it is the people he is killing?" Commentaries such as this can be heard with increasing frequency in San Carlos these days.

Judith Rios, head of the youth movement in San Carlos said that more youth have become interested in joining the Sandinista Youth Movement since the fighting began. She explained "They see people their age killed by the Contra and they become angry and want to do something. They want to become involved."

Contra military activity has already begun to affect social benefits brought about by the revolution. The partial destruction of the Bremon ship has become a symbol of this. Donated by workers from Bremon, West Germany, to the Solentiname campesinos for transporting their goods, the Bremon ship was destroyed by ARDE in May. In Rio San Juan people will comment, "How could anyone think Pastora would bring about anything good if he is destroying the few good things we have?"

In the remote areas, the Contra are pressuring campesinos to lend their support. This, coupled with the assassination of campesinos by the Contra, is causing many to migrate to the towns to look for protection.


ARDE's propaganda presents their war as something which will happen quickly and easily. After six weeks of fighting, campesinos have begun to desert when they see only more dead and long months of fighting ahead.

ARDE's false military claims are easily detected by those who live in the region. In La Azucena, townspeople watched on T.V. as Pastora claimed on the Costa Rican networks that his troops were in control of their town. The lie was obvious. The people now had one more reason to distrust Pastora.


The revolution is responding to the situation created by the Contra by accelerating its own development plans and political work in the region.

According to Sandinista political coordinator Javier Alvarez, the number of Sandinistas has increased considerably in the last year. The Sandinistas reach the population both through the radio and through visits to communities, cooperatives and farms.

UNAG has issued a call to campesinos in the Contra camps to return saying that the revolution is generous. UNAG leaders reports that several have returned and have begun to plant again.

The Nicaraguan government has freed 10 of the 70 Contras who surrendered when their camp was discovered in April. Captain Bosco Centeno says there are plans to release more prisoners.

When the revolution arrived in the zone, the dispersion of the population formed one of the greatest obstacles to economic development and to meeting the needs of the people. According to Horacio Cuadra, the Agrarian Reform Institute defined three cooperative development zones near roads and on excellent farming land for the voluntary relocation of campesinos from the remote areas. The campesinos would form cooperatives, receive land and technical assistance and benefit from social services. Campesinos have begun to move to these zones, attracted by the incentives which the government offers.

Recently Contra activity in isolated communities has motivated campesinos to migrate. The government is planning to channel these migrations towards the cooperative zones. In this way, the response to an emergency situation also corresponds to long term development plans. This plan will enable the revolution to bring benefits to the campesino and will enable the campesino to organize self defense brigades.


Rio San Juan exemplifies in an extreme form the challenges facing the Nicaraguan revolution today. The revolution has developed realistic plans for the region which favor the majority and will enable Nicaragua to work its way out of underdevelopment. Yet these plans require an enormous effort.

While human resources are scarce throughout Nicaragua, this problem becomes especially acute in Nicaragua's most remote regions. Due to isolation and lack of infrastructure and social services, these regions have been unable to train their own people or attract professionals from other regions.

These areas are also often the most marginalized politically. In many communities, the revolution has brought about concrete benefits to the population, but these have not been accompanied by sufficient educational work which could help the population to interpret their situation, the problems they still face and the future which the revolution is trying to build.

The counterrevolution has opened war fronts in Nueva Segovia, Jinotega and Madriz, Northern Zelaya and Rio San Juan all remote regions located along Nicaragua's borders. While Contra military activity aggravates the problems in these regions, the general war situation contributes to the economic crisis, making it more difficult to bring benefits to these regions.

Fear of a new reality, confusion and discontent, added to Contra terror tactics, have enabled the counterrevolution to develop a limited social base in these areas. While this social base may constitute a very small percentage of the total population, it does enable the Contra to survive in these sparsely populated regions.

In the northern front the FDN operates, while in the southern front ARDE is active. Although both groups attempt to destabilize and eventually overthrow the Sandinista government, ARDE has attempted to distance itself from the FDN and from the United States.

ARDE expresses its opposition to the revolution using Sandinista terminology. This has enabled ARDE to be more effective within Nicaragua and to obtain support in the exterior, particularly with the media and some European social democratic groups.

The figure of Eden Pastora is key to ARDE's image. After taking over the palace in 1978, Comandante Zero took off his mask, revealing his identity as Eden Pastora. He became a symbol of the Sandinista struggle both within Nicaragua and internationally. When Pastora announced that he would take up arms against the National Directorate, he became known as the traitor in Nicaragua, while internationally he remained the disillusioned hero. Today the international media presents Pastora as the underdog who has right on his side, but lacks military might because of his unwillingness to accept arms from the United States.

Pastora has completely personalized his war against the national directorate. In a country which traditionally has associated power with personalities, this enables Pastora to capture people's attention, if not convince them of his cause.

While Pastora attempts to distance himself from the FDN and the United States, there is an implicit alliance. ARDE aspires to take power. Yet to do so, ARDE must depend upon the United States and the FDN to overthrow the Sandinistas. In the hypothetical case that ARDE came to power it would have to form a government based on a strong alliance with the National Guard and the United States.

In six months of fighting, ARDE has already committed serious errors such as the assassination of campesinos and the ambush of West German journalists. As ARDE's military activity intensifies in upcoming months, contradictions between its claims and its deeds will sharpen. While these contradictions may make ARDE's current strategy unviable, this does not mean that ARDE will cease to exist as a political military force in Nicaragua. Objectively ARDE works in the interests of the Reagan administration, and the U.S. government can be expected to find a way to sustain it directly or indirectly.

Mapa Departamento de Río San Juan....

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