The Contras: Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold
"The US strategy proposed the overthrow of the revolutionary government in a relatively short period via a military front with the mercenary forces. If the war has now been prolonged, it is not because the United States initially proposed that it would take a long time.
"The strategy of using mercenary forces as an axis to constitute an important political force in the principal cities of the country, with the sectors opposed to the revolutionary government, has been failing, particularly between 1984 and the present."
—Comandante Humberto Ortega Saavedra,
This evaluation by Nicaragua’s minister of defense, made in an interview in The Washington Post in October 1985, is even more valid at the beginning of 1987. Nicaragua is today approaching what may be its most decisive crossroads of the last six years. The US scandal that originated with the illegal triangulating of funds to the Nicaraguan counterrevolution through Israel's sale of US armaments to Iran threatens to throw this mercenary force into a deadly crisis. Articles appearing recently in the US media have carried headlines such as "The Contra May Be Counting Its Days" and "Reagan Has Lost the War in Nicaragua," while members of the new Democratic-majority Congress have announced their intention of using the moment to definitively cut all aid to the counterrevolutionaries.
By revealing the illegality and immorality of US aid to the Nicaraguan counterrevolution, Iran-Contragate suggests a serious loss of credibility for Reagan's policy in the international community and within US public opinion itself. It also aggravates the of the counterrevolutionary forces’ political weakness, a weakness already evidenced in its military defeats.
Given the strategic decline of its surrogate military apparatus, what will the Reagan administration opt to do? Will it resign itself to some sort of modus vivendi with the Sandinista revolution or at least to what one US foreign policy analyst called a "hostile peace"? Or will it decide to intervene directly? Will it try to draw public attention away from Contragate or will it begin to comprehend the deeper reasons for the failure of its policy?
While the answers to such important questions will only be revealed with time, what can be said now with certainty is that Contragate did not trigger the crisis of the counterrevolutionary project. Rather this crisis could be seen coming over the more than five years of conflict; during the whole of that time they lacked any political strategy able to spark an uprising of the Nicaraguan people against the Sandinista movement.
By traveling through the distinct phases of its political-military aggression, we offer our readers a "chronicle of the defeat foretold" of the counterrevolution. Our objective is to provide greater understanding of the possible perspectives for this war.
The Counterrevolution: A puppet warAs with any war, the history of this one is complex, a phenomenon in which the military aspect is combined with political, economic, diplomatic, ideological, ethical and even religious ones. From a spatial point of view, it has very defined geography: the borders with Honduras and Costa Rica, the isolated mountain range that runs south through the center of the country and the Atlantic Coast.
The war is not some fatalistic "accident of history," product of the Nicaraguan revolution's "youthful immoderation," fruit of "Sandinista militarism" or, as some US perception spinners have suggested, "the only way Managua’s totalitarian government can survive."
Nor is it a "civil war," as others have opted to portray it, looking only as far as the fact that Nicaraguans are fighting Nicaraguans on home ground. From the beginning it has been a war of foreign aggression financed and directed by the most rightwing government in recent US history. Also from the beginning its objective has been the overthrow of the Sandinista government though the application of various formulas. Thus it is perfectly defined as a "counterrevolutionary" war, or, seen in its larger context, part of the US "counterinsurgency" war in the region.
As it has done with other third world revolutions, the United States "imposed" the counterrevolutionary war on Nicaragua. Its own imperialist imperatives led it to try to detour, erode and finally destroy the revolutionary project.
Thus, the conditions imposed by the war represent the context, the sine qua non, in which the Sandinista revolution has been obliged to face the task of consolidating the revolutionary process. It has employed a healthy dose of ability and pragmatism to maintain insofar as possible the delicate equilibrium based on a policy of national unity, going forward at the same time with the transition toward a new society.
It is thus either simplistic or duplicitous to accuse the revolution of "becoming militarized." Faced with a war of aggression, there is no other alternative than self-defense. In Nicaragua's case it has been a comprehensive defense, and both the successes and errors of this war result from the revolutionary leadership’s political capacity to combine the tasks of military defense with grassroots participation, the needs of production and other aspects of social life. For this reason the experience accumulated by the Sandinistas in these years of conflict represents a contribution to other processes of transformation in small peripheral countries.
Up to now, the contras have been the principal military instrument in the aggression against Nicaragua; the White House has carried out its war through them. The approval in June 1986 of $100 million in military and "humanitarian" assistance by both houses of Congress and with bipartisan support functioned as a sort of "official declaration" of this war.
In an effort to clean up the contras’ negative image in international and US public opinion—even with all the US support—President Reagan had been presenting the Nicaraguan counterrevolution as the "most powerful peasant army" in the history of Latin America, stating that it is composed of more than 30,000 men. "Too many," said the US President, to all be Somocistas, thus insisting that they are directed by political leaders without ties to the past regime.
In his propagandistic zeal, President Reagan has also presented the contras as "freedom fighters," comparing them to the American founding fathers (leading Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau to rename his chief contra character "Comandante Nathan Hale"). With an accuracy for which this US President is not normally noted, Reagan on one occasion declared, "I'm a contra, too."
The number of contras claimed by Reagan is obviously exaggerated, but the image of the largest peasant army in the continent—a classic cross-class dream of the US empire—is perhaps the crucial element of the strategic project designed by the US for the counterrevolution in Nicaragua.
The US projectThe United States has been refining this project on the basis of five main focal points.
1. The countryside. The United States proposed to create and consolidate a political-military force capable of overthrowing the Sandinista revolution. To do so it counted from the beginning on the remains of Somoza's National Guard. Of the 15,000 men in the Guard at the moment of the revolutionary triumph, some 7,000 were taken prisoner by the revolutionary government. The others dispersed through other countries and some of them took refuge in foreign embassies in Managua. From the very first moment, while President Carter was still in office, the CIA took on the role of getting the Somocistas out of the embassies and gathering them from other countries, then regrouping and consolidating them as a standby force while President Carter carried out his efforts at co-opting the revolution.
The CIA proposition was a) to occupy some territory along the strategic northern border and proclaim a "provisional government" there; b) to thus create a symmetry with the Salvadoran conflict, thereby simultaneously weakening the revolutionary forces in Nicaragua and El Salvador; and c) to gain a social base inside Nicaragua by attempting to destroy or impede the revolution’s social advances in the countryside. This effort was supported initially by a sector of the medium and large agrarian capitalists linked to Somoza and to the family networks of the former National Guard. Later the counterrevolution moved to recruit, in whatever way it could, a sector of the peasantry, particularly the poorest and most isolated peasants of the so-called "agricultural frontier." This sector became the object of an intense ideological-religious campaign rooted in simplistic anti-communism.
Initially, the theater of operations for the counterrevolutionary war was Nueva Segovia, which borders Honduras in the Pacific. Later it was extended to the mountains even further inland: Estelí, Jinotega, Matagalpa and Boaco, dropping progressively southward toward the isolated tropical zones of the central Chontales-Boaco region. The intent was to cut the country in two by joining up with the guerrilla force of Eden, which operated out of the southern border region of Costa Rica.
2. The Atlantic Coast. From the beginning, the United States moved to take advantage of the historic tensions between the Pacific and the Atlantic to aggravate the difficulties the Sandinistas were encountering in their relations with the different ethnic groups of the Atlantic Coast. Early on it encouraged the alliance between the Somocistas and Miskito leader Steadman Fagoth. Since then, without ever renouncing the strategic design of dividing the country in two and thus preparing the conditions for an eventual direct intervention in this region, the US has tried every way it can to impede the process of rapprochement between the Miskito communities and the FSLN through the regional autonomy project for the Coast. (Because of the distinct nature of the conflict in the Atlantic Coast, characterized by the ethnic question, we have preferred not to introduce this issue into the current analysis, although we do take it into account.)
3. The cities of the Pacific. The above two focal points, parts of the same strategic project, remain partial and incomplete if a third aspect is not taken into account. The United States proposed the creation of an "internal front" in the cities of the Pacific, by infiltrating urban commandos specialized in sabotage and attacks, and, above all, encouraging the coming together of political, ideological, economic and religious forces that would openly challenge revolutionary power with the goal of significantly destabilizing it.
4. The Central American region. A fourth aspect of the project involved creating the regional conditions to keep the revolution under constant pressure and the threat of a direct intervention by US troops. The United States has stirred up border tensions with Honduras and Costa Rica in search of "pretexts"; it has involved El Salvador in logistic support to the contras; it uses the Southern Command bases in Panama in violation of the Torrijos-Carter canal treaty; and it has transformed Honduras into its Central American "aircraft carrier" with the installation of bases and other infrastructure and the constant implementation of military maneuvers a few kilometers from Nicaragua’s border.
5. The international sphere. Finally, the United States has used every method at its disposal to isolate Nicaragua internationally. It has boycotted the peace proposals of Nicaragua and Contadora; it has pressured its allies to take bellicose positions against the revolution; it has cut its direct trade relations with Nicaragua and tried to undermine those Nicaragua has with other countries; and it has carried out a persistent ideological campaign against the Sandinista revolution.
This was, and in good measure continues to be, the "strategic framework" designed by the United States to destroy the revolution. It is in its own fashion a coherent project, and there were certain moments in the conflict when it seemed that its advances—particularly in the first two aspects—were a serious threat to the revolutionary process.
The project was based fundamentally on a class alliance dominated by the pro-US sector of the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie that had "survived the shipwreck," to use Vice President Sergio Ramírez's phrase. It proposed to bring together—for an interim period—diverse grassroots sectors, mainly from among the peasantry, by manipulating their religious sentiments for that purpose. The plan was to orchestrate these sectors into a political-military structure around a strong command nucleus made up of former National Guard officers and sons of Somocistas whose land had been confiscated after they mortgaged it to the banks and fled to the United States with the cash in 1979.
The real orchestra leader, the United States, seriously thought it could provoke an internal collapse of the Sandinista revolutionary process, which it considered still immature and incapable of sustaining a systematic and concentric offensive on all fronts. It believed it could provoke another internal uprising such as the one that had just overthrown the US ally, Anastasio Somoza. Nonetheless, its achievements were never more than partial and temporary, and today it can be affirmed that this strategy, as a whole, has already failed.
Why the counterrevolution is a failureBelow is our analysis of the underlying reasons for this counterrevolutionary decline and the perspectives for the future of the conflict. We have confined ourselves mainly to the project's first focal point mentioned above, dividing its development into what we see as four phases:
1) July 1979 to the end of 1980, the phase of the bands;
2) Beginning of 1981 to February 1983, characterized by the introduction of guerrilla groups;
3) March 1983 to mid-1985, the introduction of counterrevolutionary Task Forces and Operational and Regional Commandos;
4) Mid-1985 to the present, defined as the strategic decline of the counterrevolution.
Given that this is a recent and still unfolding history, these phases are necessarily only relative.
Another limitation—and at the same time a value—of this study is that we have tried to analyze the conflict only by way of the internal logic of the war itself; in other words, basing ourselves on an attack/response criterion. On the one hand, this involves the counterrevolutionary strategy and activities planned by the CIA and carried out by the contras, and on the other, the revolution's response to these challenges.
Phase one: July 1979 to December 1980This is the phase of the "bands," made up of a few hundred poorly armed and barely trained men, the majority of them small-town Somocista politicians, ranchers tied to the old regime, cattle rustlers, former National Guard officers and even some former guerrilla fighters. The bands, in short, did not have a precise political profile. Barely coordinated among themselves much less with what was being put together abroad, they had a vague inter-class nature and were motivated mainly by sentiments of personal vengeance (in the case of relatives of former Guardsmen), inter-family feuds (between peasant families) or resentments of the kind that any profound social change provokes (former Sandinista guerrillas with utopian or ultra-leftist positions or with little ideological preparation who were embittered because they had not been given special privileges after the triumph). These bands were dedicated mainly to robbery and cattle rustling and posed no threat to the country’s security.
In July 1980, the most serious episode of this phase occurred. One of these bands, headed by "Dimas," a native of Yalí and an ex-guerrilla with a certain following in the area, tried to take the communities of Quilalí and Yalí. His band was also responsible for the murder of the first cooperative leaders and popular education promoters.
Meanwhile, in Honduras, the first groupings of former National Guardsmen began to come together. The main one of these was the "September 15th Legion," made up of high-level Somocista officials. Trained initially in "private" camps in Florida and California under CIA direction (from as early as the end of 1979, according to some journalistic sources), hundreds of ex-Guardsmen and their close relatives formed the first terrorist groups on their return.
The contras were then sent to establish their first camps in the Honduran departments of El Paraíso and Choluteca, counting from the outset on tactical support from the Honduran army. Given the characteristics of the bands, the CIA infiltrated and controlled some of them over time; these groups were later converted into the Special Operational Commandos (COE), known for their cruelty. By then, the phase of the bands had already concluded, and the CIA, with the structuring of a single counterrevolutionary force, announced its aggressive escalation.
In these first months, the revolution's military defense was still in an embryonic phase. After the triumph, the vast majority of the Sandinista guerrilla fighters moved to occupy positions in the new state institutions.
Permanent units of the Sandinista Popular Army began to be formed and in February 1980 the Sandinista Popular Militias were created to support them. The first militia volunteers were basically agricultural laborers, cooperative members, the poor of the rural towns and urban militants of the Sandinista Youth (JS-19).
In this first period, the army was busily developing its permanent units as a dissuasive factor against the eventuality of direct US intervention—an eventuality it had no doubts about. It laid the groundwork for defending strategic military and economic objectives of the Pacific.
The struggle against the bands and the incipient armed counterrevolutionary movement remained basically in the hands of the Ministry of the Interior (MINT). Small police units were formed and established permanent bases in Wiwilí, Río Blanco, Waslala and other locales. One result of their work was precisely the routing of Dimas' band.
Although these units succeeded in breaking up some of the bands, there were as yet no comprehensive plans to attend to the needs of the regions affected by the armed groups. The Somocistas themselves, once disbanded, gradually came under the control of the CIA operating in Honduras, which had strategic plans for them.
Legal measures such as the Emergency Law (July 1979 to April 1980) were also taken in this period, together with other preventive measures in some isolated mountainous zones such as requisitioning the light rifles with which the peasants protected their crops from animals or hunted for food. This measure caused understandable disgruntlement and had an initially negative effect in the relations between the revolutionary government and the poorest peasants, since their old rifles represented an instrument of labor and a means of subsistence. In fact, the measure turned into a political error when the weapons were not returned to their owners once the bands were routed.
In this phase, too, the first units of Border Guard Troops made their appearance, dispersing along the border with Honduras in small groups of 20 to 30 men. From the very beginning, these posts were systematically harassed by the former Guard members in Honduras. On September 14, 1980, when the first two members of these forces were killed in Mata de Plátano in the department of Nueva Segovia, few imagined how common the deaths of these border defenders would become. Nonetheless, the fact that no border post ever fell into Somocista hands speaks eloquently of the troops’ commitment despite their limited military preparation.
The social dynamic begun with the revolution unleashed a period of major transformations, of massive campaigns such as the literacy crusade, of hopes, illusions and, as is natural, of inevitable tension, confusion and imbalance.
The Somocista lands were confiscated with the first agrarian reform decrees in July 1979, becoming the "Area of People's Property" (APP), or state-controlled lands. The state began to give some of this land over to cooperatives, together with easy credit arrangements and other services.
The government's economic policy faced hard choices between the commitment to national unity and the urgency of effecting the social and economic transformations demanded by the workers, particularly rural workers. As a consequence, the agrarian reform proceeded slowly (it would not be proclaimed "officially" until July 1981); as late as February 1983 the land titles given over to the peasants, mostly as cooperatives, represented less than 2% of the country's arable land. This slow movement was hard for the peasants to understand, since they expected rapid and massive land redistribution from the revolution. Such a policy would have no doubt brought different negative effects, since the state could not have provided adequate and consistent services to additional cooperatives.
By prioritizing the creation of the state-sector APP and the cooperatives, the state was seen by some peasants as a new "boss." A broad sector of the peasantry was further disappointed by the fact that the redistributed land was not given out in individual plots. In various parts of the country there were also spontaneous land occupations, which challenged the government's agrarian policy of protecting the more or less efficient landowning capitalists who agreed to abide by the program of national unity.
In part as a result of this complex set of tensions between the peasant base and government policy, productivity fell drastically in the countryside, despite the increase in the minimum wage. Jokes began to be heard about the "historic vacation of the proletariat."
The creation of state distribution channels—ENABAS for basic grains and ENCAFE for coffee—also produced tensions with the old brokers for these products. In fact, while the state succeeded in controlling the sale of the crops, it never managed to replace the small merchants who traditionally supplied the peasants. Furthermore, distribution in this phase favored urban rather than rural workers.
Some coffee growers in Region VI, the coffee-rich departments of Matagalpa and Jinotega, tried to oppose the government measures, seeking alliances with cooperatives and other associations that had grown up under Somoza. Cattle ranchers, affected by the efforts to control contraband, moved to support the first counterrevolutionary actions. Indicative of this period was the posture of some cattle ranchers from the Matiguás area, who sided with the political positions represented by the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement (MDN) of Alfonso Robelo, a member of the first Government Junta of National Reconstruction. Robelo left the government in April 1980, becoming a major protagonist in the serious political tensions sparked by a demonstration his party called in Nandaime in March 1981.
In July 1980, the government decreed a law against decapitalization. In November of the same year, Jorge Salazar, head of the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), was killed in a confrontation with the Sandinista Police as he was transporting weapons in his vehicle. Salazar, it was revealed, had given $50,000 to the counterrevolution and was accused of being involved in a plan for an armed coup. This episode signaled the definitive rupture of the accord between the large pro-US capitalists and the Sandinista government, marking the limits of revolutionary tolerance. As a counterweight to this sector, one began to hear about "patriotic producers," those who contributed their efforts to reactivating the economy.
In this first phase, the country's priority was reconstruction. The state institutions were being developed amidst great difficulties and with a serious lack of trained cadres. The revolution could not yet reach all crannies of the mountains, and the vacuum of political work was filled by the bands. This initial effort would later allow for the implantation of the first networks of counterrevolutionary collaborators.
It is important to bear in mind that the majority of FSLN and government cadres came from the cities of the Pacific and had a typically urban mentality, with little awareness of the rural situation. The National Literacy Crusade would form the rural breeding ground in which the new Sandinista cadres would begin to develop their understanding.
Meanwhile, dozens of religious sects began intense ideological-religious campaigns against the revolution, preaching passivity, an apolitical stance and anti-communism, and finding fertile terrain precisely in the most isolated zones of the mountains.
In sum, there was as yet no "war" and the defense of the borders was not a priority in the revolution’s forward motion. Among the major challenges the revolutionary process faced in this first phase was the formation of the Border Guard Troops and Sandinista Popular Militias, together with the creation of the new permanent army as a dissuasive element capable of confronting a possible US invasion, and the maintenance of the delicate balance implied by the policy of national unity despite the tensions this generated in the government's relations with the peasantry. Already, however, Nicaraguans began to speak of the "counterrevolution," identifying it with the Somocista past.
Phase two: January 1981 to February 1983Ronald Reagan’s election as President of the United States in November 1980 was decisive for transforming the ex-National Guard groups dispersed throughout the United States and Central America into a Honduras-based armed, organized and coordinated movement with a clear objective. That objective, simply put, was to destabilize and overthrow the Sandinista government.
In the beginning, however, the new Republican administration's priority for the Central American region seemed concentrated in El Salvador, where in January 1981, a few days before Reagan's inauguration, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) launched a "general offensive." The United States was confident of gaining a rapid victory against the Salvadoran guerrilla movement, after which it would turn its full attention to Nicaragua.
General Alexander Haig, Reagan's first secretary of state, accused Nicaragua of "exporting" its revolution and sending arms to the FMLN. Based on this accusation—never proven by the administration—the United States argued that the contra presence on the Nicaraguan border was to cut or impede the supposed transport of weapons between Managua and the Salvadoran revolutionary movement.
Beginning in January 1981, the CIA gave the green light to what was then a covert war against Nicaragua, accelerating the preparations already initiated in the first phase. From their bases in Honduras, the contras developed an intelligence system and networks of collaborators and message carriers within Nicaragua. They filled their ranks through forced recruitment; and through a policy of "calculated terror" they tried to cut off state services in the countryside and convert the revolutionary presence in its mountainous regions into an exclusively military one.
The CIA supervised the political and military structuring of the Somocista groups. In late 1981 the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) was created in Honduras. It grouped together various Somocista organizations that had sprung up after the revolutionary triumph: the September 15 Legion, which was the strongest; as well as the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ADREN) and the Nicaraguan Liberation Army (ELN), both of which were small Somocista groups. In this phase, the CIA assigned Argentine military advisers the task of training the counterrevolutionary forces, together with elements of the Honduran Army.
In November of that same year, Reagan provided the counterrevolution with its first direct financing ($19 million). This represented only a small part of the total "covert" aid channeled through the CIA over the ensuing years to the FDN, the Miskito group Misura and other counterrevolutionary groups.
One such group was the Nicaraguan Democratic Union-Nicaraguan Revolutionary Armed Forces (UDN-FARN), which had sprung up in Costa Rica in 1980 at the initiative of Fernando "el Negro" Chamorro and his brother Edmundo. CIA financing for the UDN-FARN basically responded to the effort to open another war front in the south of Nicaragua, although it never had a real weight in the conflict and its effort to carry out sabotage attacks—such as an attempt to blow up Nicaragua's only oil refinery and the state cement factory—were discovered and aborted. Later, it would split from the FDN to ally with the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE), and when that alliance fell into crisis over uniting with the FDN in mid-1986, it would return to the fold of the FDN-UNO in mid-1986, only to leave again in January 1987, angry over the assignment of funds.
In early 1981, overreacting to what the government understood to be a separatist plot by leaders of Misurasata (Miskitus, Sumus, Ramas and Sandinistas United), a mass indigenous organization created following the revolutionary triumph, it rounded up some two dozen top and middle-level leaders. With that, several thousand angry young Misurasata cadres crossed over into Honduras. Once Misurasata leader Stedman Fagoth—previously an informer for the Somoza security apparatus—was released, he also crossed over, made contact with the CIA, quickly forged an armed organization he called Misura and created an alliance with the Honduras-based September 15th Legion. Fagoth’s brutality, his refusal to share power with other indigenous leaders and his alliance with the Somocistas created tensions with Brooklyn Rivera, another Misurasata leader who was still trying to keep the organization alive. When Rivera’s negotiations with the government over a series of land and other issues fell apart, he turned Misurasata into another armed organization, which began to operate out of Costa Rica and by the end of 1982 had united with ARDE. Militarily weaker than Misura, Misurasata disputed it for US support and for the loyalties of the coast’s indigenous population.
At the end of 1981, Misura, with help from the September 15 Legion, carried out a plan called "Red Christmas," the first large-scale counterrevolutionary operation of the war, reputedly designed by the CIA. The target was the Miskitu communities of the Río Coco, which bordered Honduras in the Atlantic Coast department of Zelaya. Fagoth issued a call to the Miskitus in these communities in their own language over "Radio 15 de Septiembre," given to the contras by the CIA and airing from Tegucigalpa, to rise up against the Sandinista government and create a "liberated zone" where a "provisional government" could eventually be proclaimed. From there the "liberators" would ask for international recognition and request US intervention via the OAS Inter-American Reciprocal Assistance Treaty. The Sandinista government reacted to this effort by evacuating the communities from the banks of the Río Coco and relocating them to new resettlements further from the Coast, naming the area Tasba Pri.
Meanwhile, from their bases in Honduras, the mestizo contra groups were extending their activity north of Estelí and into the mountains of Jinotega and Matagalpa. They were also consolidating logistical support networks among the families of the ex-Guard and other counterrevolutionaries and among the poor peasants of the agricultural frontier who were disillusioned by the slow pace of the agrarian reform or were related to local contra leaders.
The Ministry of Interior forces managed to dismantle some of the contras' logistical networks. The revolution, which had already abolished the death penalty and successfully combated desires among the population to take personal revenge against National Guard murderers at the time of the triumph, again demonstrated its generosity. It quickly pardoned peasants who had gotten caught up with the contra bands due to family ties or political confusion, continuing to do so even when some of those pardoned went straight back to the contra movement.
In this phase of the war, the principal protagonists of the struggle against the bands were no longer the Ministry of the Interior forces, but the Border Guard Troops, the Sandinista militias, some army units and the new self-defense cooperatives (armed peasants organized so that half worked the land while the other half defended their property against contra attempts to burn their crops and storage facilities). In general, none of these groups were trained for irregular warfare and most were still very poorly armed.
In October 1981 the joint US-Honduran military maneuvers called "Halcón Vista" were initiated in Honduras. They were the first of an interminable series to prepare the war theater in the region (see envío, December 1985).
While the counterrevolutionary actions began to noticeably affect the productive zones, "Radio 15 de Septiembre" refined its propagandistic message along the lines of classic anti-communism, in defense of private property and religion and against the supposed "atheism of the Sandinista-communist regime."
On the political-economic plane, the agrarian reform took its first steps. The first land-titling ceremony for peasant farmers took place on October 16, 1981, in Wiwilí and San Albino, areas where General Sandino had founded the first cooperatives.
The regions most benefited in this period were in the north. Between October 1981 and December 1981, some 35,000 hectares were expropriated in Region VI and 15,000 hectares in Region I. Some 67% of the land in Region VI—the majority of it abandoned—was assigned to the APP. In Region I, on the contrary, 60% of the affected land was assigned to the cooperative movement. The handing over of these first lands was largely symbolic since they didn’t satisfy the increasingly strong peasant demand for land they could call their own, much of which was coming precisely from the conflictive zones where the counterrevolutionary bands were trying to set up guerrilla operations.
At an institutional level, the APP enterprises were regulated, the cooperative law was decreed and in the first months of 1981 the National Union of Farmers and Cattle Ranchers (UNAG) was created to represent the interests of small and medium producers. In its first year UNAG gained more than 40,000 members.
The state guaranteed the private producers that the new agrarian laws would not affect productive capital. Despite this a sector of the bourgeoisie abandoned production and dedicated itself to speculative activities, rerouting the credits it had gotten from the government into private bank accounts abroad. The "patriotic" sector of producers—coffee and rice growers in particular—kept their commitment to the revolutionary process. There was also a sector of business owners who continued to contribute to the development of the country but with no apparent enthusiasm, while criticizing the lack of an "appropriate investment climate."
Socioeconomic indicators confirm that, thanks to the guarantees offered to the private sector and to the postponement of a profound agrarian reform (which is always characterized by a serious drop in production at the start), the agrarian sector registered just under 9% annual growth between 1980 and 1983.
A large amount of agrarian credit continued to be available at low rates but this was not of much benefit to the poorest peasants who still had no land of their own or access to production inputs. Subsidies and production incentives were increasing, but production did not reach the pre-revolutionary levels of 1978 in either the private sector or the state-owned APP sector, a fact that began to spark some debate over the efficiency of the state enterprises.
In general, the government continued to give priority to the state sector’s organizing and political work, its supply and distribution channels, large development projects and the cooperative sector, favoring the production cooperative model over the service and credit cooperatives of peasant farmers with individual plots. The problems in the revolution's agrarian policy created an opening that the counterrevolution could and did take advantage of, using it as an opportunity to introduce a guerrilla base.
Under the CIA’s direction and with the help of the Argentine advisers, the counterrevolution made a qualitative leap in its command structure and its operational forces. In 1982 the CIA created the FDN Political Directorate, largely made up of recognized Somocistas, under the leadership of a former National Guard colonel, Enrique Bermúdez. Although still embroiled in the internal rivalries that prefigured its later decomposition, the FDN was defined as the offspring of the Somocista National Guard. (See the testimony of Edgar Chamorro, member of the FDN Directorate from 1982 to 1984, in the October 1985 envío. The FDN's Somocista membership was confirmed by an April 1985 report written by the US Congress’ bipartisan Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus and published by the Institute for Policy Studies, which showed that, while the majority of the contra troops were poor peasant farmers, 46 of the 48 high-level FDN leaders were ex-Somocistas.)
The Argentine military’s advisory role ended in the second half of 1982, due to the war in the Malvinas which precipitated a crisis in the Buenos Aires military government. At that time, all of Latin America formed a common front against Great Britain. US support for Britain weakened its own position in the OAS, decreasing its chances of using the Inter-American Reciprocal Assistance Treaty, the traditional instrument for justifying US military intervention on the Latin American continent.
With the departure of the Argentine advisers, the CIA was obliged to take the covert war’s dirty work into its own hands. In July 1982, contras penetrated into San Francisco del Norte, 12 kilometers from the border with Honduras. In this first concerted massacre of a civilian population, the contras killed 15 peasants after mutilating and torturing them and kidnapped 8 others. Before leaving they wrote on the walls of the town, "With God and patriotism we'll conquer communism!"
At this time, according to Nicaragua’s Ministry of Defense, about 1,000 contras were already operating with a fair amount of stability within Nicaragua, although the traffic of these groups in and out of Honduras was still very intense. Daniel Ortega spoke of it as a "silent but bloody invasion."
With what they called "Plan C," the contras tried repeatedly at the end of 1982 to occupy the Jalapa region in the northernmost part of the country, again with the goal of inciting the population against the government, declaring the area "liberated territory" and proclaiming a provisional government. Jalapa and its peasant militia, attacked on all sides, heroically resisted the contra assaults. The contras' terrorist policies, in particular their policy of forcibly recruiting the local population, contributed to their own military defeat.
The major confrontations of this period were still taking place along the border. The Sandinistas’ resistance forced the CIA to amend its original plan of quickly and easily "liberating" a territory with a new medium-range strategy that involved implanting troops deep into the mountain areas. Under the command of "Renato" in Matiguás, "Mike Lima" in Pantasma and "Tigrillo" in northern Estelí, among others, armed contra bands penetrated into the mountains of Matagalpa and Boaco, taking advantage of the as-yet weak presence of the revolutionary government in that area. Because there were few if any government social services or political organizing in those areas, the contras, although still functioning in small groups of perhaps 50 armed men, were able to consolidate a network of support and prepare the way for the subsequent emergence of regional commandos. They attacked cooperatives, health centers and schools, ambushed government officials, and killed peasant farmers who sympathized with the revolution.
It was clear from the beginning that the counterrevolution had no defined political proposal for the peasantry. Its only political-ideological program was a "return to the past" and renewed total dependence on the United States. In the Atlantic Coast, the CIA tried to take advantage of the FSLN’s difficulties and errors in its policies toward the indigenous communities, but again had nothing of its own to offer. The lack of a programmatic basis for alliance with the indigenous fighters—even those with whom it shared the goal of overthrowing the Sandinistas—would ultimately defeat its efforts to thwart revolutionary accommodations in the region.
In this phase, the defense of the revolution rested above all with the militias and the Reserve Infantry Battalions that grew out of them. Region VI had over 12,000 militia members, the majority of whom were agricultural workers and cooperative farmers. Over a two-year period, dozens of Reserve Battalions were sent into the mountains. Made up of volunteers, Sandinista Youth members and sympathizers, workers from the productive sector and poor and marginalized young people from the urban barrios, the Reserve Battalions constituted a bridge between the country's two cultures, rural and urban. This encounter of two cultures was not without its mistakes and misunderstandings, but the contact served as a kind of "political laboratory" for refining the country's defense plans.
The Reserve Battalion members were older on average than the contras, had only limited knowledge of the terrain and of peasant idiosyncrasies, had inadequate weapons and were sent into the mountains for only six to eight months, a period just long enough to toughen them up but not to let them reap the fruits of their accumulated experience.
As the Reserve Battalion played an increasingly important role in the struggle, the Border Guard Troops became less important and the Ministry of the Interior units disappeared altogether. It was by then impossible to defend such a long border (700 kilometers) from the massive infiltration of contras with only small groups of Border Guards, and from a geographic point of view it was difficult in any case. The military theater moved towards the interior mountains, making it useless to talk of defending a "line." The army opted to defend principal centers such as Matagalpa, Jinotega, Estelí, Jalapa, Waslala and other towns, still with an eye toward the possibility of direct invasion.
The changes in the revolution’s defensive tactics did not represent a qualitative leap in combat preparedness as much as a response to the conflict’s geographic shift. Defense spending had not yet become a priority within the national budget; the bulk of the resources devoted to defense were consumed in preparations for a US invasion. In this sense, the war was unequal. The Somocista groups, well armed and supplied by the United States, were better trained for the kind of war being conducted than were the militias or Sandinista Army reservists.
In April 1982 the opening of a new political military front in the south was announced, with the introduction of guerrilla fighters from Eden Pastora's Sandino Revolutionary Front (FRS), which together with Brooklyn Rivera’s Misurasata and Alfonso Robelo, who had left Nicaragua shortly before due to the FSLN's supposed unwillingness to hold "democratic elections" made up the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE).
The ARDE line differed in form and level of subtlety from the FDN propaganda, and was strongly personalized in the figure of Eden Pastora, the famed “Comandante Cero” of the Sandinista insurrection. Its ideological message was carried mainly over the radio waves of "Voice of Sandino" and "Radio Impacto," both of which transmitted from Costa Rican territory, and included a "religious" component by Catholic priests, delegates of the word and evangelical pastors. The focal point of the ARDE discourse was the rescue of the "originality" of the Sandinista revolution more than a frontal confrontation with it, as is the case with the FDN propaganda. Pastora and others referred frequently to expelling from power the nine "corrupt" and "communist" comandantes and the return of the "best loved comandante," as Pastora vainly referred to himself.
Pastora's "treason" was motivated by adventurism and resentment, and it awakened enthusiasm in Washington. A White House official declared, "Pastora is our man." Comandante Daniel Ortega responded simply by prophesying that "there is only one revolution and soon there will be only one counterrevolution."
In fact, ARDE never posed a strategic threat to the revolution. In his adventure, Pastora was followed by a handful of Sandinistas with little weight within the FSLN. The great political failure of Pastora, who joined the counterrevolution from his position as Vice Minister of Defense and national head of the Sandinista Popular Militias, was that he failed to trigger an internal schism within the Sandinista movement or a domestic uprising by the population.
The ARDE group, badly trained, undisciplined and headed by men with little guerrilla experience, also failed to compete militarily with the FDN. ARDE's main theater of operations was the department of Río San Juan, an under-populated, isolated region on the southeastern border of Nicaragua.
In these efforts to implant counterrevolution in Nicaragua, some differences and weaknesses in comparison to the FMLN guerrilla movement in El Salvador were already apparent. The contras, unlike the FMLN, received sustained support from the most powerful country in the world—the United States—as well as from countries bordering their struggle (it is mainly in Honduras that the contras have been organized and trained, and where they recover after battles before reentering Nicaragua). Without these "comforts" it would be impossible for them to survive inside Nicaraguan territory. On the other hand, their dependence on the United States and on their bases in Honduras has weakened their relationship with their potential social base in the zones of penetration. None of this is true for the FMLN, whose relation with the Salvadoran population has historical roots and a revolutionary political character.
The efforts to implant the counterrevolutionary guerrilla movement in the interior were progressively replacing the initial objectives of "liberating" a border territory. The contra groups made incursions into ample regions of the Nicaraguan countryside, which required a readjustment and acceleration of the revolutionary government's defensive plans. A "Plan of Immediate Measures" was prepared for the northern regions, aimed at ensuring an active state presence in the most conflictive zones.
In Region I during 1982, the APP sector was reduced by some 50%. The state gave cooperatives in the region titles to some 30,000 hectares of land from the APP and from farms affected by the agrarian reform or bought from private owners. With this the cooperative movement tripled in size, and included some 500 cooperatives, 30 of which were organized as self-defense coops.
In Region VI the cooperative movement was less mobilized and the level of investment in the large state development projects continued. These included a large agro-industrial project in Sébaco, a cattle project in Muy-Muy/Matiguás and technological improvements on coffee plantations, all projects requiring major human and economic resources.
The political-administrative regionalization proclaimed on July 19, 1982, helped make it possible to reassign these resources more effectively, avoid excessive state centralization, and permit the autonomous development of prolonged grassroots resistance in the regions in the case of a US invasion.
The subsidies and incentives policy was maintained, while production levels continued to drop. Peasant indebtedness grew and the government proceeded to restructure and partially cancel the debts. While Nicaragua’s peasant farmers were better off than those in the rest of Central America, the purchasing power of salaried farm workers and the rural supply system continued to deteriorate, although the latter was not yet drastic. The contras’ growing military and ideological pressure increased the uncertainty in the countryside.
Phase three: March 1983 to July 1985The new phase started at the end of February 1983 with the invasion of some 5,000 contras and, symbolically, with another massacre. It occurred in San José de las Mulas in the mountains of Matagalpa when the contras killed 23 members of the Sandinista Youth, who had been in the military for only a few weeks. The "muchachos," surprised in the night and carrying only World War II vintage weapons, faced contras supplied with modern and sophisticated arms. Other groups came into the small towns of San Ramón and Esquipulas, near Matagalpa, around the same time.
Pope John Paul II visited Nicaragua on March 4. In the open mass held in Managua, the mothers of the 23 fallen youth asked the Pope to offer a prayer of peace and consolation, which he refused to do.
In this phase the CIA collected the fruits of the contras' infiltration work, kidnappings and implantation initiated in the previous phase. There were some 17 counterrevolutionary encampments in Honduras at the time. The contras made a qualitative leap in their operational structure, developing the so-called Task Forces, Operational Commandos and, later on, Regional Commandos.
The Task Forces, with approximately 200-300 armed men in each, were made up of peasant farmers wit little military experience and weak political-ideological convictions; they were led mainly by ex-Guard officers. The Task Forces began to have geographically well defined operational zones and enjoyed sustained logistical support from Honduras. By this time the contras were supplied with modern communications equipment coordinated with a CIA-run command post in Honduras, and had sophisticated weapons and an efficient air supply system. Their operational tactics were based mainly on the capacity to join several Task Forces together to hit military, economic and civilian objectives, then disperse in small groups, making army pursuit difficult.
The FDN’s recruitment methods consisted of political, ideological and religious "persuasion." In the contras' backpacks were Bibles, flyers with a photo of John Paul II in the Managua mass captioned "The Pope is with us!" and other publications that openly proclaimed Managua Archbishop Obando y Bravo as their chief. The contras also often carried copies of the CIA's "Manual of Psychological Operations," a pamphlet that was revealed publicly in 1984. The CIA continued to take advantage of the disillusionment among the poorest and most isolated peasant sectors in the agricultural frontier, calling on them to rise up against the revolution. This recourse to "psychological" propaganda techniques did not, however, mean that the contras discarded the use of terror and forced recruitment to swell their ranks with thousands of poor farmers.
All these factors permitted the counterrevolution to quadruple their forces, so that between 1982 and 1983 they went from a maximum of 3,000 men to a surprising 8-9,000; by 1984 they were able to put together nine Regional Commandos, some of which later joined together, reducing the number to six. These commandos coordinated two, three or more Task Forces, with the objective of creating more stable bases inside Nicaragua. With the development of the Regional Commandos, the FDN was able to raise the number of troops to 12-15,000 men.
It was a major new step in the US military strategy. The idea was to create political-military conditions inside the country to assure the continual reproduction of the counterrevolutionary forces. They planned to install themselves in and control vast stretches of Nicaraguan territory.
Taking into account the characteristics of a war of movement, the Regional Commandos were distributed more or less as follows in Nicaraguan territory: "Nicarao" in Ciudad Antigua, Telpaneca and the zone of San Francisco, a major recruiting ground in the past of the National Guard; "José Dolores Estrada" in San Juan de Limay, La Trinidad and Estelí; "Segovia" in the Yalí and San Juan del Río Coco zone; "Diriangén" in Wiwilí, Quilalí and Pantasma; "Rafaela Herrera" in Bocay, Cerro Kilambé and El Cuá; and "Jorge Salazar" in Matiguás, Waslala, Río Blanco and, two years later, in Boaco, Chontales and Nueva Guinea.
The combined military strategy put into effect by the CIA was now evident. In the first place, it was to keep pressure on the revolutionary process constant with more or less open threats of invasion. It prepared the necessary regional and international framework for this possibility—bases in Honduras, frequent maneuvers, warships off the Nicaraguan coasts, violations of Nicaraguan airspace, etc. It also fabricated "incidents" and "crises" such as the fake "MiG Crisis" in November 1984, immediately after the elections in Nicaragua and hours after Reagan’s reelection.
In the second place, it would try to destabilize and, if possible, overthrow the Sandinista government through its mercenary instrument, the counterrevolutionary forces. The third element was to try to sow terror and uncertainty in the cities of the Pacific, through the so-called "Internal Front" and direct CIA actions (sabotage, destruction, killing of revolutionary leaders, etc.).
Within this strategy, the Task Forces attacked Jalapa again in its "Plan Siembra" in June 1983 and "Plan Sierra" in December of the same year. It also hit Somoto and Ocotal in "Plan Marathon" in September 1983. The intent was still to isolate and occupy this region, proclaim a provisional government and request US intervention. In "Plan Luna Negra" they attacked the mining region of the northern Atlantic Coast in coordination with Misura, with the goal of kidnapping the communities of Tasba Pri. Neither of these objectives was achieved.
With the US invasion of Grenada In October 1983, tensions grew throughout the Central American region. The United States did not hide its message: the Marines are ready to intervene, taking advantage of any favorable pretext and moment, such as was created in that small island with the tragic death of Maurice Bishop, murdered by his former comrades.
Several targets were hit by air between September and October 1983: the Managua international airport (hit just hours before the arrival of a congressional delegation), the port of Corinto, several military posts, fishing cooperatives, etc. In addition the oil transport terminal at Puerto Sandino and the oil tanks at Port Benjamín Zeledón on the Atlantic Coast were sabotaged by boat.
In March 1984, the CIA mined the ports of Corinto and Puerto Sandino. Nicaragua turned to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, at which point the CIA suspended this type of sabotage.
Months later, in coordination with the "abstentionist" political campaign of the "Coordinadora Democrática" of four rightwing parties, La Prensa and some bishops, the contras launched a "generalized offensive" in the mountains of Jinotega and Matagalpa for the purpose of undermining the electoral process. The plan was to create chaos in the country and thus prepare the conditions for a direct intervention. Again, that did not happen. At the end of 1984, the contras were putting strong pressure on the coffee regions, trying to prevent a successful harvest. Dozens of coffee pickers died in various ambushes.
The Regional Commandos also attacked the towns of San Rafael del Norte, San Juan del Río Coco, Waslala and Pantasma, among others. In the latter case they took advantage of discontent created by crimes committed by several Sandinista cadres in March 1984 (who were sentenced to 30 years in jail once their actions were discovered).
The counterrevolution continued apace with its strategy of hitting and destroying civilian and economic targets. The contras, according to one farmer, were "dogs that bite and run," even in this phase when the Sandinista Army had not yet managed to deal serious return blows. The counterrevolution amply publicized its "impunity" in these attacks to try to win over a social base in the sector of the peasantry that found itself "between two fires." The principal target of the attacks was the cooperative movement: over 600 cooperativized farmers were killed in this period. In Palacagüina the grain silos were destroyed and more than 40 private and state enterprises were attacked, causing millions of dollars in damages. The contras also killed Noel Rivera, a patriotic producer from Matiguás, in a clear effort to terrorize the productive private sector that was merely cooperating with the revolution.
With "Operation Puente" in mid-1984, the CIA tried to unify the center-north operational theater with that of the south, joining FDN and ARDE forces in Region V (Boaco, Chontales and Nueva Guinea). In the south, ARDE’s forces sought a international propagandistic blow to accredit ARDE in the eyes of the United States. In June 1984, they occupied San Juan del Norte, a small fishing town at the mouth of the Río San Juan in the Caribbean, separated from the rest of the country by 200 kilometers of tropical jungle. The takeover had no strategic relevance and the population, some 250 people, had already been evacuated as a precaution a year earlier. At the moment of the attack there were only some 70 Sandinista soldiers in San Juan del Norte. The action, painted in the international media as an ARDE success, was a brief and pyrrhic victory. The town was retaken days later by the army, with serious losses for ARDE.
Despite this military failure, ARDE was portrayed as the presentable face of the counterrevolution, in opposition to the FDN Somocistas. Pastora was received in Washington, and the CIA pressed for the union of all counterrevolutionary forces. Pastora’s only condition was that he be named their "supreme chief." The FDN opposed Pastora's ultimatum without closing the door to a common front with ARDE: "The alliance with ARDE will happen this year , with or without Pastora," declared FDN Political Director Indalecio Rodríguez on "Radio Impacto."
Pastora became a victim of his own ambition. His pride and his Sandinista past made him untrustworthy in CIA eyes. Robelo, for his part, broke with ARDE and moved closer to the FDN. ARDE began to fall apart and the US reduced its supply of weapons and logistical support. At the end of May 1984, Pastora was wounded when a bomb went off during a press conference in La Penca, on the shore of the Río San Juan. Pastora himself initially accused the CIA of responsibility for the terrorist act, but later said he "didn't know" who could have organized the plot, opting to say no more about it.
In Río San Juan, some 7,000 people were moved to a dozen resettlements along a highway that was being constructed. In the November 1984 elections, the Sandinista Front won 75% of the votes in this department, the highest total in any department of the country. In the new settlements themselves the FSLN won more than 90%.
Throughout 1983, the army looked for a way to readjust its strategy in response to these changes in the nature of the counterrevolution. New regional structures were created in the mountains, based on the self-defense cooperatives. The Reserve Battalions operated as impediments to the counterrevolutionary concentrations. Specialized units of the army and the Ministry of the Interior—in the latter case, the extremely agile Pablo Ubeda Troops, specializing in counterintelligence work—leveled important blows such as the downing of a contra supply plane in Río Blanco and the annihilation of an entire task force in Camoapa.
On July 19, 1983 the Patriotic Military Service Law was announced, and the draft itself began in September. As was to be expected in the middle of such a war, the draft created serious social tensions. The Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference took the opportunity to issue statements against the law, arguing that the army was a party army, not a national one. Some priests openly encouraged draft evasion and the flight of young people from the country. Months later the Commission to Support Combatants was created to deal with family problems related to the mobilization of thousands of young people.
Despite its initial difficulties, the Military Service Law represented an enormous qualitative leap in the country’s defense, since it permitted the concentration of permanent army forces to defend the Pacific without ignoring the war fronts in the mountains and on the borders.
The Military Training Center of Mulukukú was created in the heart of the mountains and the young men were mobilized for a period of two years, which meant a substantial improvement in their military preparation. "Simón Bolívar," the first of the Irregular Warfare Battalions specially trained for anti-guerrilla struggle, went into action. The weaponry improved and with it, troop morale. In fact, the number of Sandinista casualties dropped noticeably with the advent of the draft: only 1% of the more than 30,000 young men mobilized have died.
In May 1984, the Supreme Council for Defense of the Homeland was created. It in turn headed Regional Defense and Security Councils, with the goal of better coordinating the army, the Ministry of the Interior, the FSLN and state structures in the implementation of "comprehensive defense" plans. One of these was the "From Pomares to Fonseca Plan," which tried to combine all state initiatives around the needs of defense and production.
Peasant farmers were hit hardest by the war. They had to endure the highest costs as contra targets—attacks, destruction, killings and kidnappings—even as they were putting their own lives on the line to defend sovereignty. They also suffered the most from the general effects of the economic crisis. Since 1982, the war had seriously impeded the flow of health, education and social security services toward the countryside in many areas.
The integration of agricultural workers into defense deprived the productive sector of a labor force. Women and children took up positions in production and it became not an unusual sight, for example, to see a peasant woman from Jalapa driving a tractor.
The population displacements due to the war implied the social uprooting of thousands of peasant farmers, the loss of harvests and the abandonment of fertile lands. Furthermore, despite the writing off of agricultural debts, which particularly relieved the economic pressure on small-scale corn and beans producers, their purchasing power continued to deteriorate. The provisioning of food and other supplies continued to favor urban workers more than rural ones. The Farm Workers Association (ATC) asked the government to guarantee a basic market basket of products to mitigate the impact of the crisis.
The land titling program accelerated, particularly in Region VI, where some 320,000 hectares were redistributed. Lands were also redistributed in Region I, in smaller but equally significant proportions. In that region, the cooperatives were incorporated into strategic projects such as the production of tobacco and basic grains with a relatively high mechanization level. The region also achieved self-sufficiency in food production.
Given the threat of a direct US intervention, the patriotic producers organized in UNAG came out in support of the government. The FSLN sealed its alliance with this sector by naming some of these producers as its candidates to the National Assembly in the 1984 elections. The pro-US sector of the bourgeoisie, meanwhile, continued de-capitalizing their businesses.
The FDN, despite having suffered a defeat in its initial plan of implanting bases in the Segovias—in Jalapa, Ocotal, and Estelí—had managed to extend its theater of operations. It had moved progressively from Region I to Regions V and VI with the strategic goal of settling into the territory, replacing its casualties and creating the conditions for its "self-reproduction" precisely where the revolutionary presence was weakest, all the while distracting the Sandinista forces with the threat of an eventual direct intervention.
Nonetheless, at the start of 1985, the counterrevolutionary expansion went through a sort of paralysis period, if not yet a decline. The contra forces were still strong, perhaps stronger than ever—calculated at between 12,000 and 15,000 men—but exactly at their most pivotal moment they couldn’t consolidate their presence, occupy territory or deliver decisive blows to the Sandinista process.
Meanwhile, the revolution was steadily sowing the conditions to turn around the course of the war. If these political-military elements—particularly the Patriotic Military Service Law—were germinating in the last months of 1983 and in full development throughout 1984, it was finally in the first months of 1985 that the revolutionary process managed to bring them together into a policy of comprehensive attention to the conflictive zones. The harvest of this crop was on full display by the second half of 1985.
The change in the correlation of forces was due to multiple factors. In the first place, more sophisticated military means were incorporated into the Nicaraguan defensive war, such as transport and combat helicopters and artillery. The national budget for defense increased noticeably.
More importantly, the Sandinistas had now developed a more comprehensive and coherent military doctrine, addressing all fronts of the military, political, economic, social and ideological struggle. The key element of this doctrine was consciousness of the "political" nature of the war, in which it "is won by whoever wins the people, not whoever kills more," in the words of Deputy Defense Minister, Major General Joaquín Cuadra.
With the advent of the comprehensive defense strategy, some of the social costs were overcome. In fact, fewer people were mobilized in 1985 than in 1983. Implementation of the draft also permitted better planning of the defense needs and a more efficient distribution of forces. In the mountains, this translated into the new modality of the "guerrilla war of positions," based on a stable, not just occasional, presence of many small " Operational Support Bases," greater familiarity with the terrain and the excellent operational capacity of the Irregular Battalions, which had become very agile in their pursuit of the enemy. The Irregular Battalions operated in coordination with the territorial peasant militias, formed by peasant youth who, instead of doing their military service in other parts of the country, were now serving in the territorial defense structures in their own places of origin.
"For peace, everyone against the aggression" and "Everything for the war fronts, everything for the combatants" were some of the most frequently heard slogans at the beginning of 1985. "The war, as a phenomenon," said Comandante Luis Carrión, "is not strictly military, but also political and social." The government and the FSLN National Directorate gave Carrión responsibility for Regions I and VI, those most affected by the war. As an expression of this comprehensive conception of defense, his "Unified General Plan" for these regions, which would include military, political and socioeconomic actions, was put to the test at the beginning of 1985.
The first measures were organizational. The numerous political-administrative government bodies were reduced and the FSLN itself streamlined its political work by reducing its 15 zonal committees to 5. At the same time, the Regional and Zonal Security and Defense Councils were reduced. This redistribution of resources permitted the FSLN to retake the political initiative in many conflictive zones, poorly attended in the previous years due to the war.
A regional cadre training center was opened in Region VI. "This is essential to developing the capacity to coordinate all efforts around defense with the lower levels so that everyone acts in a line, in one single plan, with one single vision," explained Carrion. This coordination work implied a serious critical analysis of the role of the war’s "political aspect," the importance of the relationship with the population and of the agrarian policy, among other things. The logic behind these administrative reforms was now not to defend the country and prevent a full-blown invasion but to really defeat the counterrevolution.
The last months of 1984 and the first of 1985 were, in fact, the most self-critical of the revolution. Given the challenges posed by the armed conflict, the government revised the direction of the Agrarian Reform and the presence of its institutions in the countryside in order to consolidate the alliance with the peasantry as a fundamental political subject of the revolution.
The new plan’s first objective was to strengthen the alliance with the poorest landless peasant farmers. Throughout Nicaragua, despite the agrarian reform, there was still a strong pressure for land. In 1985, it was calculated that 40% of the peasant farmers in Region VI still hand land problems. In May-June of that year, the organized farmers forced the agrarian reform to take a new turn. (See envío, September 1985.) The shift toward the interests of the peasantry was expressed in the massive land titling to small individual producers and in greater flexibility toward the cooperative movement.
In response to this strong demand for land, the state also reduced its own area and negotiated with the private sector for the purchase of farms, which were then assigned to the cooperatives.
These efforts were accompanied by greater attention to problems of supply, distribution, transportation, etc. in the countryside. In general, the state had to reduce its role in distribution and stock, reorienting the role of the APP enterprises at the same time. There was also greater attention to health, social welfare and education in the rural areas.
In the first months of 1985, a peasant resettlement program was also carried out in the regions of the north, affecting some 7,000 families displaced by the war. Various conflictive zones of the mountains were evacuated in this plan, which permitted the armed forces to create "free fire" zones where they could use artillery fire and the air force—particularly the new combat helicopters—without affecting the civilian population. Even after the extraordinary conditions that motivated the vast resettlement plan were overcome, however, it would be some time until these regions were declared safe enough for people to return.
Subsidies to production, which had favored the poorest urban sector but in fact created disincentives for small and medium farmers to continue producing, were eliminated from the 1985 economic package. The monetary mass freed with the elimination of the subsidies was transferred in part to the producers through new prices for basic grains, in part to salaried workers through 150% increases in their wages and in part to the commercial sector.
In February 1985, the córdoba was devalued relative to the dollar. Inflation began to climb steadily, deteriorating the newly gained purchasing power of salaries. The government gave dollar incentives to coffee, coffee and cattle production.
A process of intense and self-critical re-evaluation had also been underway in the Atlantic Coast for several years. Its objective in essence was to distinguish legitimate ethnic demands from the manipulation of ethnic sentiments by self-serving leaders. The most far-reaching result of the effort was the government's recognition in late 1984 of the aspirations in that multi-ethnic region for greater autonomy from Managua. This in turn opened the doors to dialogue with those sectors of Misurasata and Misura that were genuinely fighting for indigenous rights.
While the highly publicized negotiations with Brooklyn Rivera ultimately failed, it was not before both sides had agreed to a tactical ceasefire. And on May 17, 1985, ten days before Rivera walked out of the final session of talks in Colombia, representatives of the government in the northern part of the coastal region reached even more important agreements with a significant fraction of Misura: a ceasefire and a return to the Río Coco of the Miskitu civilians who had been evacuated to Tasba Pri over three years earlier.
This major reduction in hostilities on the coast gave the war-torn communities room to breathe, and the government, assured that its vehicles would no longer be blown up on the roads, began to normalize the delivery of supplies. The taste of peace, although it would not be without its interruptions, whetted the appetite of the civilian population, which in the next period would play an important role in encouraging the continuation of the dialogue.
In sum, if we were to draw a graph of this period in military terms, we would see an uninterrupted growth of the counterrevolutionary forces. At the same time, however, two great failures of the contra strategy would be equally evident. The first was that precisely at the moment of their greatest strength, the contras remained unable to achieve any strategic political-military objective such as occupying a city or town, or getting the population to rise up against the Sandinista government in the hoped-for "civil war." Nor did they succeed in impeding the success of the electoral process: only 16 of the 3,892 polling places were closed, and those were for preventive reasons rather than due to any direct contraattack. The CIA's strategic design of openly uniting a civic-military front of "abstentionist" sectors and the armed counterrevolution—"blessed" by the Catholic bishops' proposal for a " national reconciliation dialogue " in their April 1984 Pastoral Letter—was also failing.
The counterrevolution’s growth phase ended when the Sandinista response—the full set of comprehensive measures adopted throughout this phase—obliged it to abandon its positions inside the country and seek security in its bases in Honduras and Costa Rica. In the Atlantic Coast it ended when the Sandinistas, by embracing autonomy as a principle of the revolution, drove a wedge between those who were genuinely fighting for their indigenous rights and those whose only reason was US money or the US counterrevolutionary plans.
Phase four: July 1985 to dateThis phase, ushered in, broadly speaking, in mid-1985, heralded the "strategic decline of the counterrevolution." The portrait of the war indeed showed changes in the three operational theaters: the mountains of the center-north, the Atlantic Coast and the southern front.
In July 1985, the army launched "Operation Sovereignty" in the department of Río San Juan, pushing the ARDE groups back into Costa Rica. On the Nicaraguan side of Río San Juan, the army occupied an air strip used to supply these groups. With their logistical networks cut, the by-then few small groups of ARDE remaining inside Nicaraguan territory started being supplied directly by the FDN.
In August, an ARDE group kidnapped the "Peace Ship" which carried some 30 US Christian pacifists belonging to Witness for Peace. The poor handling of the episode by the kidnappers aggravated ARDE's political crisis.
In May 1986, six of the seven heads of that organization abandoned Eden Pastora for "Negro" Chamorro's UDN-FARN, at that time allied with FDN-UNO. Pastora announced his withdrawal from the struggle, saying, "It is now impossible to win the war against the Sandinistas." He asked and received asylum in Costa Rica. According to journalist sources, the CIA had to pressure the Costa Rican government to allow him refuge.
This offensive in the south was accompanied by strong pursuit of the contra groups in the north. The high mobility of the Irregular Battalions and of the Ministry of the Interior’s special "Pablo Ubeda" forces obliged the contras to be continuously on the move through the mountains. The territorial defense systems did the rest. For the contras, the mountains were now a "minefield." Wherever they moved they were bound to clash with the broad reach of Sandinista defense. The war of erosion was turning against them; it was they who were now being eroded.
They began to suffer numerous casualties under the generalized offensive. The FDN’s Regional Commandos were obliged to split up their forces into small groups to try to avoid direct confrontations with the Sandinista Army. The contras "don't show their faces anymore," as one small farmer commented, and it was no longer possible for them to remain settled in the territory without being easily detected, pursued by the Irregular Forces or pounded by Sandinista artillery.
At the start of 1985, the Sandinista government broadened the terms of the amnesty promulgated for the first time in December 1983, now including within it any contra leaders willing to voluntarily turn in their weapons. That first amnesty decree explicitly excluded top contra leaders, covering only contra fighters who wanted to give in their weapons and return to their communities, as well as pardoning some 300 Miskitu arrested for what had been considered counterrevolutionary activities in the previous two years.
The measure, which introduced the category "alzados" into the war lexicon, represented another important change in the policy toward the isolated peasant sectors who had joined the counterrevolution voluntarily or by force. The verb alzarse means, among other things, to rise up. In this context, the coined noun is thus an armed rebel and it began to be used in this period to distinguish between confirmed counterrevolutionaries and those who had been taken in by the contras' deceptive propaganda. The return to one's community offered by the amnesty is eased by another coined term, desalzados, or those who have laid down their arms. It is a linguistic method to help other community members, despite living in the heat of war, overcome the image of such people as bestias or beasts, as all participants in the counterrevolution were indiscriminately called up to this period.
The amnesty has been a growing phenomenon, as these figures show: 100 in Siuna, 309 in El Cuá-Bocay, 111 in Río Blanco. As of today, the number of contra fighters who have formally taken advantage of the amnesty is calculated at around 2,000. Among those, the most well known ones are former National Guardsman Efrén Mondragón, head of the "José Dolores Estrada" Regional Command, and Misurasata founder and leader Jimmy Hodgson.
At the same time, given the demand for security by the self-defense cooperatives, coffee pickers, patriotic entrepreneurs, resettlements and peasantry in general, State Security carried out impressive operations that dismantled a number of contra logistical networks inside the country. With "Plan Llovizna," a network of 150 contra collaborators was broken up in the mountains of Matagalpa and Jinotega in November 1985. The elimination of these networks, particularly their armed components, facilitated the amnesty program enormously since the young peasant combatants now had less fear that the contras would kill them if they gave themselves up and returned to their homes.
When the contras tried to enter Nicaragua from Honduras without their network of collaborators they were as if deaf and blind. Furthermore, they now had to skirt various obstacles: Border Guard Troops, which had returned to their original function; Permanent Territorial Companies; Irregular Battalions; self-defense cooperatives, etc.
The contras were thus pushed back toward the north, suffering serious casualties along the way. Faced with this unfavorable turn of events, all but one of the Regional Commandos opted to retreat to their strategic rearguard: their bases in Honduras. Only the "Jorge Salazar" Commando managed to move further into the interior, into the isolated and minimally populated tropical forest of Central Zelaya. The current survival of this commando is due mainly to two factors: first, its operational locale is particularly apt for guerrilla actions and second, the army’s focus on eliminating and expelling the other commandos closer to the border with Honduras had permitted the "Jorge Salazar" Commando a relatively long period—from May 1983 to July 1985—to settle in without major harassment.
By its own definition, the counterrevolution must expand into new territories, widen its theater of operations, distract the Sandinista forces and deflect their pressure. They also, by this time, need better results in order to legitimate themselves internationally as a belligerent force. Faced with these imperatives, the contras moved to the attack again, with "Plan Repunte"—splashy but suicidal attacks such as one in August 1985 against La Trinidad, some 100 kilometers north of Managua on the Pan American Highway near Estelí. They managed to penetrate the town for a few hours, but in their retreat, the entire Task Force—some 300 men—was wiped out by the army and the Permanent Territorial Companies. On this occasion, the Soviet-made artillery-mounted MI-24 helicopters entered into action for the first time.
Once the "umbilical cord" linking the groups inside Nicaragua with their camps in Honduras had been cut, life became very difficult for the contras. Terrain was lost and, with it, the possibility of winning a social base and replenishing their serious losses of both troops and middle-level military leaders. In fact, throughout 1985, the contras replaced their more than 5,600 casualties (some 4,600 dead, 500 wounded and 500 captured, according to the Nicaraguan Defense Ministry) thanks only to massive abductions, but they could no longer grow. Their potential "reserves" in Regions I and VI seemed to be exhausted.
The movement of the "Jorge Salazar" Commando toward Region V responded precisely to a new effort to make that isolated region the counterrevolution's strategic breeding ground. The relative growth registered by the FDN in that region, however, did not compensate for the losses suffered in Regions I and VI, until then the main center of its forces. Massive kidnapping showed its limitations as a recruiting method in the low morale and limited ideological and combative preparation of the contras thus incorporated.
In this situation, air drops of supplies to the contras became more and more indispensable. The CIA was able to give this aid in abundance since Sandinista defense had not yet managed to stop them. (It has been somewhat cut back more recently, due to the Hasenfus case.) Without the food, weaponry and munitions, boots, medicines, etc., received by these air drops, the contras would have been unable to continue fighting, much less recruit new people.
These trends in the war became increasingly clear throughout 1986. The most intense battles were concentrated on the border with Honduras where, in March, the army made a major hit against the contra camps, causing some 600 casualties, and in November-December effectively pushed back an invasion attempt of some 3,000 contras.
Meanwhile, in the central zone of the country, the Irregular Battalions and the new Light Hunter Battalions—even more agile and trained to pursue the routed bands—were keeping up their offensive against the "Jorge Salazar" Regional Commando, considered the FDN’s strongest and most "strategic," and currently the only one remaining inside Nicaragua.
Faced with the contras' reverses, the CIA responded with a more terrorist-style escalation, providing the contras with new, highly sophisticated instruments such as the remote-control mines that sow terror along mountain roads. Dozens of defenseless peasant men, women and children and foreign cooperants have been the victims of the renewed contra terror. Entire families were exterminated in single transport truck explosions in San José de Bocay and Pantasma.
The FDN-UNO’s crisis at the military level again unleashed the contradictions at its center. The Nicaraguan Opposition Union (UNO), created in June 1985 in San Salvador as the "contras’ political face," was led by the so-called "Triple A": Adolfo Calero, Alfonso Robelo and Arturo Cruz. The CIA openly pressured them either to overcome their differences or to give the CIA itself a free hand to resolve them. The internal conflict is revealed in the organization’s international image and leadership. Cruz wanted the "civilians" to have more weight and the decisions by the three to be made by majority and not consensus, which could put Calero, head of the military wing, in a minority position on a number of issues.
Calero finally accepted a compromise: the three would take turns leading every two months. US officials proclaimed it a "positive step, in which the leadership was broadened, strengthening the civilian control and coordination of the military activities." The accords left the FDN's military apparatus intact and the crisis remained just below the surface, waiting for a new blow-up, which indeed occurred in January 1987 (see "The Month" in this issue).
In October 1985, the Reserve Military Service began to be implemented, through which thousands of workers and other residents of the cities in the Pacific between the ages of 25 and 40 received training for three months. The objective is to organize the popular defense of the Pacific in case of direct US intervention by joining the reservists together with the permanent army units—heavy artillery, armored vehicles, air force, anti-aircraft systems, etc. With this measure the Defense Ministry has completed the structuring of its defense strategy, the development of which could be summarized as follows:
Phase one: Structuring the army, creating the militia, and the Interior Ministry’s struggle against the bands.
Phase two: Development of the army’s permanent units for defense of the Pacific and the struggle of the militias, mobilized for short periods, in the mountains.
Phase three: Start of the Patriot Military Service; development of the Irregular Battalions and territorial organization (peasant militias) in the mountains, while continuing to build the army’s defense preparedness in the Pacific.
Phase four: Growing professionalization of the permanent army forces and strengthening of defense in the Pacific with the mobilization of military reserves and the increasing operational capacity of the Irregular Battalions and Light Hunter Battalions in the mountains.
No substantial changes have been made relative to the preceding phase in the political-economic sphere. The defense budget remains around 50% and occupies almost a third of the economically active population, which is a very heavy load for the country's survival economy and creates inevitable tensions. The agrarian reform continues its attention to the poorest peasantry and, given the improved military situation, is still retaking the initiative in the zones that were until very recently the most conflictive. Major strides have been made in land titling. In October 1986, Río San Juan was proclaimed "territory free of landless peasants." Also in 1986, over 50,000 hectares were added to the 20,000 already titled in Boaco-Chontales, while another 200,000 are programmed for the next three years in this region, which is prioritized in the 1987 economic, military and political plans. In the mountains of Matagalpa and Jinotega, despite the massive counterrevolutionary infiltration at the beginning of 1987, coffee is being harvested on farms that just three years ago had been abandoned because of the war.
The military balance sheet for the counterrevolution demonstrates the significant decline of its forces. Current assessments are that the counterrevolutionary forces proper now number no more than 6,000 men. In this past phase ARDE disappeared altogether.
The new Miskitu organization, Kisan, created in September 1985 with the enticement of increased US assistance to replace Misura (Steadman Fagoth himself had been expelled from Misura two months earlier because of his responsibility for the surfeit of forced recruitment, torture and killing of Miskitus), is now down to less than a thousand men. Most of those are in Honduras, fighting among themselves over the $5 million promised to them from the $100 million passed by Congress last year. Misurasata’s ranks have been reduced to about 150 men, the hard-liners moving to Kisan or FDN, and those interested in the autonomy project melting back into community life.
The Sandinista government developed a multi-faceted grassroots consultation process with the indigenous communities to hammer out the content of the autonomy statute. In the Miskitu communities of the northern part of the department of Zelaya, autonomy has become synonymous with peace, and community-based "Peace and Autonomy Commissions" are playing a major role in convincing relatives and friends in the armed groups to join the ongoing dialogue with the government. "Kisan Pro Peace," the now-renamed fraction of Misura that signed the peace accord in May 1985, has doubled in size due to new peace agreements continually being signed by splinter groups of Kisan and Misura; its 400-plus troops make up the militia in the nine-community "peace zone" of Yulu. Unwilling to meet the wishes of the Miskitu civilian population for a re-unified organization, other armed chieftains have brought their troops into dialogue as well, but are competing with each other for power in the new political space provided by the revolution.
Meanwhile, the recently approved Constitution contains the major elements of the economically, politically and culturally comprehensive autonomy project and the operative statute itself is undergoing its final stages of approval by the communities before being submitted to the National Assembly for passage. Significant Miskitu participation in the US strategy has been neutralized.
At the end of 1986, Defense Minister General Humberto Ortega summarized the results of this phase as the product of the Sandinista defense doctrine, colloquially defined by him as the concept of the "tres pegues" (three "sticking places"): sticking to, or hotly pursuing the contras to take away their space and their offensive capacity; becoming one with the terrain, organizing a grassroots defense apparatus; and uniting with the people, particularly the peasantry, through the agrarian reform.
The comprehensive defense of the revolution has led to political-administrative improvements in the northern regions. Even in the midst of serious difficulties with supplies, services and transport, there has been better attention to the peasantry overall, and the agrarian reform is continuing to give land titles to small individual producers and cooperatives, even in the conflictive zones.
In general there has been a qualitative leap in combat readiness throughout the country. The Reserve Military Service has refined the defense plans of the Pacific. The Sandinista armed forces gave what many observers called an "impressive" demonstration of that readiness in the military parade on November 8, 1986. And in December in the northern zone of the Pacific they unveiled the defensive maneuvers called "Subtiava '86"—the largest ever conducted by the army—which simulated the defensive response that would be given to an attack coming from Honduran territory.
With the "strategic decline" of the counterrevolution, however, direct involvement in the aggression by the CIA and the Honduran army is increasing.
Perspectives: Is any end in sight?With or without Iran/Contragate, the contra war was, for many reasons, already lost. From the beginning, the counterrevolutionary phenomenon in Nicaragua was an "import product." Men, weapons (as Hasenfus' shipment of Soviet AK-47s proved, the contras do not fight with arms captured from the Sandinistas as prescribed in guerrilla manuals), boots, uniforms, food and even the political objectives are "imported."
The contras are a salaried army of the United States. Rarely in modern history has a mercenary force of this type won a war against popular national liberation movements, or against revolutionary governments in their nationalizing stage, as in Nicaragua’s case.
The “made in the USA” war has been precisely the armed counterrevolution’s strategic weakness. In its origins, the contra phenomenon had no real relation to what was happening inside Nicaragua. It had no time to "make policy," as it were. It was pushed into the arena with Ronald Reagan’s arrival to the White House and was immediately structured around a military plan, with virtually no prior political mediation. As any indicators will show, there were no socioeconomic causes in Nicaragua in 1981 to provoke an "anti-Sandinista insurrection." Neither then, nor today, in much more critical conditions, has the White House dream been set in motion: a civil war that could "justify" Reagan's parallels to the Salvadoran conflict.
The fundamental reason is that to aspire to provoke a "civil war," the counterrevolution would have had to have been "born" inside Nicaragua. Aside from the family networks of the ex-National Guard, the contras had no base in Nicaragua; when they entered the country, it was already "too late." Despite all the difficulties experienced by the revolutionary process, the Sandinista Front has known how to correct its errors and overcome its limitations with political agility, thus reversing any negative tendency.
The contras were never able to present themselves as an "autonomous" force, with a political program that was not Reagan's. They also had no capacity to put together a block of internal forces or make tight, solid alliances with any social sector of Nicaragua. In fact, not even the bourgeoisie—excluding a vociferous but minority sector—ever supported it openly, much less the peasantry.
The counterrevolutionary war was forced on the peasant culture. It not only committed well-documented atrocities against them, but took advantage of the traditional "neutrality" of the poorest peasants from isolated areas to achieve its objectives. The contras interpreted as support what was nothing more than passive non-resistance by peasants faced with the choice of collaborating with them by giving them corn and beans or risk being kidnapped or killed. They most often made the choice that saved their life, but that’s not political support.
In this sense, the relative advances of the contras until mid-1985 were less a result of their own merits than of the temporary absence of a Sandinista political initiative. Despite the initial disorientation of the revolutionary process in the face of this kind of war, the contras, even in their moments of greatest strength, never managed to establish even the smallest "zones of control." They also never affected travel on the main highways, or occupied a single strategic military or economic objective, or put together an internal military front—the dream of having a "Guazapa" a few kilometers from the capital—or hit the revolutionary leadership with any of its efforts, or created the internal conditions for their own reproduction or, above all, perturbed daily life in Managua or any of the other major cities of the Pacific. All these failures, together with their current inability to redevelop as a strategic military threat, is what is meant when Nicaragua refers to the "strategic defeat" of the counterrevolution.
If the contras have been unable to achieve any of these objectives, it has not been for lack of weapons or money from the United States. Today, neither the $100 million, nor the sophisticated arms and equipment, nor the new CIA-trained officers can bring victory to the contras, as even retired General Paul Gorman, former head of the Southern Command in Panama, acknowledged recently to the Senate Armed Services Committee. These millions cannot now help the contras in the type of "political" war that is about "winning hearts and minds," according to the US design.
It is more likely that the greater sophistication of contra armaments will make the contras' "political" relations with the civilian population even more difficult, despite whatever sophistication the CIA brings to "Radio Liberación," the powerful new contra AM radio transmitter operating out of Honduras. In this sense the leap in military technology will not be an advantage, but rather a confession of strategic defeat, as it will only increase the cost of the war in human lives. Looked at in this light, the $100 million approved before Iran/Contragate by a Congress with a Republican-dominated Senate must be seen not as a "shot in the arm" for the counterrevolution but as a step that will, in all probability, create the conditions for Reagan's final solution.
The contras, although in prolonged agony, are not yet dead. Given their decline, the CIA has tried in recent months to prepare the conditions for border incidents between Nicaragua and Honduras, and eventually with Costa Rica, by infiltrating commandos specialized in sabotage and attacks, at the same time importing even more terror into the mountains. All these indices could be signaling the beginning of a new, fifth phase in the conflict, characterized even more by terrorism and threats at the border zones—perhaps opening the way to propose a militarized international “peace-keeping” mission, while the United States ever more openly attempts to scuttle the Contadora peace plan.
US policy in Nicaragua to date, apart from causing more than 35,000 Nicaraguan victims—1% of the population, including Sandinista soldiers, civilians and contras—and provoking more than $2.8 billion in economic damage to the country, has accumulated failure after failure in the military plane. From a military perspective, the contras have returned to their 1982 state. Faced with the refusal of the Central American countries to continue tolerating the contra training camps, the United States is obliged to again train the contras in its own territory. Nonetheless, Pentagon strategists, who never really understood the lessons of Vietnam, continue to cynically debate the perspectives of this "low intensity war," failing to comprehend that is it still repeating its errors.
Given the still higher costs implied by a direct US intervention plus Nicaragua's firm determination "not to comply with the contras or co-exist with them" or their project of death, we must ask the question: What will the Washington strategists do now? Is it not time to seriously seek a negotiated political solution?
Contra "victory" through the rearview mirror
"1983 is the year of victory. We will defeat the FSLN in six months."
Indalecio Rodríguez, political director of the FDN.
"1984 will be definitive for defeating the Sandinista regime."
Adolfo Calero Portocarrero, leader of the FDN.
"1985: this is [equivalent to] 1979 for the Sandinistas."
Adolfo Calero Portocarrero.
"The Sandinista regime will fall between September of this year 
and March of the next ."
Donald Lacayo, FDN spokesperson.