Deceit, disappointment and anger are again accumulating in rural Nicaragua
Committed to the historical memory of the peasantry,
this author examines the peasant resistance of the eighties
and ensuing years to contribute to the urgently needed reflection
about the current situation in the country’s rural areas.
María Angélica Fauné
The history of the Nicaraguan peasantry is one of continuous processes of expropriation and usurpation of its resources. In recent history, the multiethnic peasant areas of north-central and eastern Nicaragua were the main stages of the war of the eighties with peasants and indigenous peoples leading the resistance in defense of their right to their identity and dignity, to continue being who they are. And they have continued to undergo cycles of arming, disarming and rearming ever since.
The new “emerging accumulators”It’s very significant that the current government, which claims to be the heir of a revolution to ensure that “workers and peasants will come to power,” no longer speaks of the peasantry, as if it didn’t exist. The same thing happens in the analyses of the country’s socioeconomic reality. No one seems to be aware of what’s happening in the countryside, even though a little over 40% of Nicaragua’s working-age population lives and survives on what’s produced there. Despite the tendency toward urbanization, there’s still a high degree of dependence on the countryside, obliging us to ask ourselves about the situation in peasant Nicaragua today, particularly those on the agricultural frontier and in the Caribbean region. These questions are even more relevant given the new wave of land appropriations by “emerging accumulators,” the term I use to identify them.
Today the peasantry is being affected by a new wave of covert expropriations by these emerging accumulators, who are heading up a rapid usurpation of our country’s natural resources under a new model of “accumulation by dispossession,” a concept coined by Marxist geographer David Harvey. Eager to mercantilize everything, they are proving to be implacable in their advance and their use of original accumulation methods. It’s a process we haven’t analyzed well yet, but we do know it’s annihilating both peasant lands and indigenous territories in the Northern and Southern Caribbean regions and in the buffer zone and even nucleus of the Bosawás Reserve and other reserves that are supposed to protect our biodiversity.
Are they rearming again in the countryside? The last properly documented record of rearmament in multiethnic and peasant Nicaragua was on March 15, 2002, the date the Army and Police closed the books on Plan Seal, which culminated with the elimination of the high command and remnants of the Andrés Castro United Front (FUAC). That operation was preceded by two military offensives: Trojan Horse (2000) and Subtiava (2001). On that date the armed institutions declared the Mining Triangle, where the FUAC was operating, “free of delinquent bands,” thus negating the FUAC’s defined political objectives.
No more was heard about armed groups with political objectives in the countryside until 2010, when various media began to report confrontations and the names of some armed individuals. The Army immediately labeled these groups “delinquent bands” as well. From the northern mountains, José Garmendia, alias Yajob, called the editorial staff of newspapers and radios to explain that he was no common bandit, but had taken up arms against the government. Born in Estelí, Garmendia was a member of what was in the eighties known as the Contra and later an official of the Nicaraguan Water and Sanitation Utility during the government of Arnoldo Alemán. As a rearmed rebel, he explained that his mission was to visit the peasantry house by house to talk to them about the electoral fraud Daniel Ortega and the FSLN were preparing for the upcoming 2011 presidential elections. By day, Garmendia was a day laborer on a farm called El Diamante in Santa Teresa de Kilambé, El Cuá. In the early morning of February 14, 2011, he was shot from a nearby hill as he was coming out of the house where he was living. The bullet split his left femur and he bled out within hours. “Don’t take me to the hospital, I’m Comandante Yajob,” he told the peasants who had assumed he was just another peon on the coffee and cattle farm of José Luis Dávila, who has himself now taken up arms, according to his producer friends in El Cuá.
Eleven months after Yajob’s death, on January 13, 2012, Santos Guadalupe Joyas Borge, alias Pablo Negro, was found dead from a bullet wound to the forehead in a border community with Honduras. He was another former contra who said he had taken up arms against the government and was hiding out in Honduras. Some media reports said he had been called to a meeting in a place near the border where he had been promised US$70,000 and a pick-up truck for his activities. Roberto Petray, of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights headed by Estelí’s Bishop Abelardo Mata, says the body showed signs of torture. This killing and that of Yajob have gone unpunished, even uninvestigated, despite the fact that no armed action by either them against the Army or the Police has ever been reported, unlike the case of the armed actions of Joaquín Tórrez Díaz, alias Cascabel.
More recently, in August 2013, a special television feature by journalist Ismael López mentioned talk of “armed groups” in Aguas Rojas, a community 20 kilometers from Wiwilí, Jinotega, nestled at the foot of a lush green hill called Kilambé. Aguas Rojas is mainly inhabited by former contras who now raise cattle and grow basic grains and coffee. López specifically mentioned a group headed up by Gerardo de Jesús Gutiérrez, alias El Flaco, also a former member of the Contra. The previous month there had been an exchange of gunfire with an Army patrol in El Tamalaque, Pantasma. Edgard Montenegro, a farmer who in the eighties was Gutiérrez’s chief in the Contra and is now his neighbor in the community, declared that the first time El Flaco went by his farm armed, he was accompanied by 5 men. The second time, in June 2013, 18 men were with him, all carrying AK-47s. “He urged me to join him, but I said no, I didn’t see any future in their plan at the time, but that he should always come by and ask for food, that I would be happy to serve in that aspect, as a Christian principle of giving food to those in need,” declared Montenegro.
Reviewing these and many other news reports, as well as the records I’ve been collecting for years, I could see that all the indicators were already there. There’s evidence to suspect a new wave of peasant resistance to the authoritarian system that could end in a new cycle of violence, a resistance demanding rights that have been expropriated. One of those indicators is the Army’s response, which is similar to the one it chose during the violent pacification in the nineties, when it also defined as mere actions by delinquent bands the armed resistance of demobilized peasants from both the Sandinista Army and the Resistance, as the Contra had by then become known, who were demanding fulfillment of the disarmament agreements.
The FSLN initiated its revolutionNone of what’s currently happening in Nicaragua is totally new. Much of what we’re seeing today we simply didn’t see before. To find some of its deep roots, we need to go back in time and look at Nicaragua’s “other reality,” because even today, when politicians, NGOs and even a good part of the population think and talk about what’s happening in Nicaragua, we’re basically thinking about the Pacific. Although we’ve seen maps of Nicaragua a thousand times, we really don’t have a complete vision of it, it isn’t alive for us. Geographies aren’t just a set of coordinates or empty land; they have an identity, a history, life and movement.
without knowing Nicaragua
I arrived in Nicaragua on July 20, 1979. I brought with me the experience of Angola’s decolonization, and discovering that I was knowledgeable about agrarian issues, some FSLN cadres invited me to participate in the agrarian reform process the revolution planned to initiate. In its historic program, known as the Programmatic Legacy of Sandino, presented to the Nicaraguan people in 1969, the FSLN defined itself as a political-military organization whose strategic objective was to take political power through the destruction of the dictator’s bureaucratic and military apparatus. It would then establish a revolutionary government based on a worker-peasant alliance and with the cooperation of the patriotic anti-imperialist and anti-oligarchic forces in the country.
With the first studies we began to do in the Agrarian Reform Research and Studies Center (CIERA), we quickly came up against limitations in the knowledge and approach being used on the agrarian issue as well as the ethnic issue in what was then called the Atlantic Coast. Even though the historic program proposed “an authentic Agrarian Reform, with the massive immediate redistribution of land, liquidating estate holders’ usurpation to benefit workers (small farmers) who work the land, expropriating and liquidating the capitalist and feudal large-holdings, turning the land over to the peasants for free in accord with the principle that the land must belong to those who work it, and the reincorporation of the Atlantic Coast, eliminating the hateful discrimination to which the Miskitu, Sumu, Zambo and black native peoples of that region have been subjected,” the first agrarian reform measures were showing an anti-peasant bias.
Prioritizing the “proletariat” in From the outset, the FSLN’s tendency was to prioritize the Area of People’s Property (APP) in state hands as the axis for the formulation of the food policy and new agrarian model. The decisions being made revealed the revolutionary leadership’s ignorance of the peasantry’s reality, especially in the northern and central parts of the country. The analyses of Nicaraguan agriculture available at the time focused on the northwestern cotton production, which was a modern agroindustry with intensive agrochemical use and a permanent skilled labor force. They therefore helped skew the knowledge of the revolutionary leadership, especially with respect to the proclaimed worker-peasant alliance and the peasantry itself.
an eminently peasant country
The 1975 book Imperialismo y dictadura (Imperialism and Dictatorship) by FSLN National Directorate member Jaime Wheelock, who was in charge of the agrarian reform, was very influential at the time even though it suffered from that bias. It presented an image of the peasantry in the interior of the country as a “backward,” autarchic and stagnant sector and characterized coffee production as purely vegetative development. All of it was far from reality and from the dynamic potential of endogenous development, which that stratum of small and medium farmers had been demonstrating through its resistance to the advance of the coffee and cattle haciendas.
Those peasant farmers had been born and developed exercising firm resistance to the voracity of the large coffee hacienda owners, which threatened their very existence as independent peasants. While that process has been largely ignored by historians, it wasn’t unknown in the origins of the FSLN. In the first guerrilla columns forged deep in the northern mountains, the Socialist Party had begun to organize the indigenous peasantry, finding a fount of historical collaborators in the mountains of Estelí, Matagalpa and Jinotega.
Nonetheless the orthodoxy inspired by Marx, Lenin and Preobrazhensky won out and imposed an industrialist conception, which argued that proletarianization would be the peasantry’s future, with the economic development process leading to the disappearance of the peasantry as a form of production. Wheelock adopted this conception, prioritizing agroindustrial development for export around state companies, arguing that the best modernization strategy was to promote capital-intensive investments from foreign sources concentrated in a few modern production units and the establishment of state control over supply and commercialization.
The conception that prevailed in the revolution had a decided worker bias. The “working class” was the subject, the base of the vanguard, ignoring the fact that the bulk of Nicaraguan “workers” were temporary, combining wage work with the cultivation of their own plot. It was a working class closely linked to the countryside. When I heard those concepts, I had flashbacks of Angola, where the first “revolutionary” measures included creating the Angolan Workers Center as the base of the vanguard, even though forced labor had predominated in that country right up to the day of national liberation…
The reality is that the FSLN initiated its revolutionary process without knowing Nicaragua, unaware that it was a multiethnic country in the profound sense of the term, and knowing nothing about the peasant country of the interior. Decree 3 of the Government Junta of National Reconstruction, issued on its first day in office, ordered the confiscation without compensation of “all goods belonging to the Somoza family, members of the military and officials who have abandoned the country since December 1977.” Decree 38, issued the following month, gave the government the power to temporarily seize the property of people accused of being allies of the dictatorship to prevent them being sold while investigations were being conducted. Those two measures affected 20% of the land in farms and were the origin of the APP. But those confiscated lands weren’t redistributed as the historic program had promised; rather they were organized into 1,500 state farms under the administration of the recently created Nicaraguan Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA). The State employed around 50,000 workers, perhaps 13% of the country’s entire agricultural work force, in those businesses.
Ignorance breeds The landless peasantry wasn’t directly benefited at that point. It wasn’t until 1981, with the Agrarian Reform Law, that the large estates were affected, and then only timidly. Idle, deficiently exploited or abandoned properties and those exceeding 350 hectares in the Pacific area or 700 hectares in the interior were declared potentially confiscatable, but in the first wave, from 1981 to 1984, only 558 properties were affected, covering a total area of some 350,000 hectares. It could be argued that the Agrarian Reform was marked by ambiguity and conflict from the outset: bitterness among those confiscated, initial jubilation among the agricultural workers, and erosion, exhaustion and increasing discontent among the peasantry.
discontent in the countryside
I still remember very well what happened with the approach of the first coffee harvest in late 1979. The revolutionary State’s new cadres, most of them young and urban with no experience managing something as complex as a coffee harvest, were assigned to head up that task. In Matagalpa and Jinotega it fell to the young Ruth Herrera, who had to learn as she went along how to administer it all, how people move for the coffee harvest, where they come from, how they’re paid and how they’re fed. I recall Jaime Wheelock going out to the coffee zone, surely for the first time in his life, and decreeing that the sleeping sheds for the coffee pickers be burned down because they were filthy and demeaning. The temporary workers who had come from the northwest for the harvest and the permanent workers on those confiscated farms listened to him then threw dry, inedible corn tortillas into the air the way you’d throw disks in sports and swished their machetes back and forth as if sharpening them… They didn’t want the revolution to burn down the sleeping quarters, what they wanted were their devalued wages, because their survival depended on what they earned on those farms, which in their mind had now simply changed owner.
The first discontent arose because the revolution didn’t respond to their basic needs: what they were going to earn and what they were going to eat on the confiscated coffee hacienda that now belonged to the State. They soon learned the government’s administrative inability to respond to them, which was the result of knowing nothing about their reality.
The lack of response in that harvest led pickers to destroy coffee bushes and irrigation hoses. Alan Bolt and I were asked to explain to the workers that they were only harming themselves with such destructiveness, but it was hard because the concept that the APP belonged to them was still very weak and the authoritarian responses to their protests only worsened the contradictions. Wheelock’s misguided declaration in his attempt to discipline the APP working class became famous: he warned that if they made any further attempt at sabotage he “would cut off their hands.” That sentence deepened and widened the abyss that had existed from the beginning between that young and enthusiastic urban vanguard and the concrete society they wanted to transform. Perhaps they were too young and too urban, and when you’re so young you don’t recognize what you don’t know and don’t stop to have a look at what’s going on around you in order to learn.
How Nicaragua’s coffeeThe ignorance about the origin of the coffee haciendas in the northern interior—that strip that cuts diagonally across the Nicaraguan territory—and about how those haciendas formed for years based on expropriating and pauperizing the peasantry in those zones further disenchanted the peasantry, which had believed in the FSLN’s 1969 program. It had been transmitted to them by the historical cadres who in those very same mountains had promised them that the land would be for them, would never be expropriated again, and there would never again be scorched earth. I recall the impact it had on me in Rancho Grande, Matagalpa, listening to vivid stories of how the big coffee business in those areas was being built on violent expropriation of the peasantry, on stealing lands. When I went to investigate in Matagalpa in those first months of the revolution, it was still fresh in people’s memory how they’d been pushed off their lands, how they’d had to go deeper into the mountains looking for new land, how they lost what had been theirs. The fencing off of those coffee haciendas was achieved with great violence.
haciendas came about
The history of the national coffee business has produced a lot of scorched earth, and a lot of blood of peasants and indigenous people from that area has been spilled on those lands that passed to the hands of the APP or were used to form the Cooperative Development Poles. Then in the nineties, those same lands, which tourists on the Coffee Route now visit, began to be re-privatized again, fenced off again by new owners. Although the FSLN had promised that these lands would again belong to the peasants, history was repeated; today the hacienda system has been reconstructed intact, and the depredating logic behind the unending advance of the agricultural frontier remains in effect, even now that there’s nowhere to advance to…
From expelled peasant How much has the ignorance of the revolutionary State’s vanguard about the “homespun producer,” the farmer of peasant origins, influenced those same people’s disappointment? We acted like we had “discovered” them, then “categorized” them as backward in CIERA’s debates with the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), an organization that from its birth argued that they needed to be recognized and attended to. UNAG was never truly listened to; in fact pushing for a change in the approach to the countryside only earned it political mistrust.
to “rural bourgeoisie”
Our studies allowed us to get to know those poor peasant farmers who in the fifties were expelled from their lands as the coffee estates advanced and sought to make a living further into the mountains, their huge efforts breaking the agricultural frontier, building their shacks, clearing land to plant crops or raise pigs and selling their labor on some farm at the cost of their family’s hunger until they could save enough to become farmers themselves in 15 or 20 years. Another way to climb a peg on the social ladder in those years was developed by landless peasants who carried rural products to the city or rural district centers on mules, using what they earned to buy a piece of land and cattle until they became full-fledged cattle raisers, a fundamental rural figure in the linkage between local and regional markets.
These peasants who became small farmers or ranchers didn’t turn into absentee land holders. They lived in that remote countryside where they had their farm, worked from sunrise to sunset alongside the laborers they hired and ate with them under the same roof. Their importance wasn’t limited to their role as intermediates in the economic sphere; given their own personal history they were also the “model to follow”: they were leaders in the rural districts.
Generally, these men weren’t linked to the Somocista regime like the big landowners were. Their links were limited to exercising administrative functions based on their local leadership. Referred to in the official language of the sociological reports in the revolutionary years as “rich peasants” or more problematic still “rural bourgeoisie,” both extremely relative terms, these farmers played a fundamental role in the functioning of the local agrarian structure and the network of its relations.
In the years before the revolution, the peasant world was a society based on kinship relations, in which power resided with the one who had the most land, most cattle and greater and better access to the market. The origin of this power was based on the perception that effort was the central element of personal progress while “destiny” or “divine justice” explained the batterings of luck and misfortunes.
“Touching” a “rich” peasantThe young, urban vanguard and those responsible for agrarian policy were unaware of all this. They not only didn’t know that the coffee plantations and large cattle ranches had come about at the expense of the peasantry, but also had no idea how the social structure worked in those areas of the country. In those dispersed and isolated lands, without roads or services, when the FSLN “touched” a “rich” peasant farmer, one of the “rural bourgeoisie,” it was unknowingly unraveling the social fabric that favored the poorer peasants, those with a small plot of land on which they had a milk cow or two and a few coffee bushes as well as growing basic grains. The “rich” peasant farmers played an important role for them by resolving their personal and social problems because they had a truck to transport sick people from the remote local district where there were no health services to the city; they had a telephone or radio communication for emergencies; and they were often the godfather of the poor peasants’ children…
could unravel the local social fabric
The FSLN not only knew nothing of that social network, it also had no idea of the fundamental role tenant farmers played in the economy of that area and how relations worked on the big coffee haciendas. The tenant farmers, who were neither peasants nor farmhands, lived on the hacienda and were given a small plot by the hacienda owners on which they could plant for their own consumption. Their work was to expand the hacienda, to clear more land by cutting down the surrounding forest, moving further and further into the mountain… The tenant farmer’s relationship with the hacienda owner was one of loyalty.
Confusing terminology Very soon, right after the first confiscations in those areas, the Domestic Commerce Ministry, with its policy of prioritizing urban consumption over peasant production, broke up the existing commercialization networks in the countryside. The revolutionary vanguard also began to distrust the small farmers. For example, when the young cadres making decisions in the countryside saw that Fortunato Castro had a hectare and a half of coffee in Pantasma, they concluded he was a “bourgeois” and expropriated him. The viewing of a wide range of small growers as bourgeois and thus counterrevolutionary began to spread.
led to confusing behavior
Who were those peasants who began to feel hounded by the revolution? They were people who had anywhere from half a hectare to two hectares of coffee, but had spent forty years grappling with virgin forest, slogging into mires, cutting down tropical rainforests, battling malaria, settling those lands to make them produce… I still have the life stories of many of those small grower families who had been resisting the real landed bourgeoisie’s attempts to rid the countryside of peasants for over thirty years.
Imposition breeds resistanceAnd what did the revolution offer those people? It ordered the peasantry to form cooperatives under the collective ownership model, thus imposing the Sandinista Agricultural Cooperatives (CAS). But those farmers wanted nothing to do with it. Imagine people who have spent so long living as individual peasants, struggling to make a go of it as owners of their own land. Do you think they’d accept working on a collective plot of land overnight? But in those years there was no saying no. Those who dug in their heels against cooperativizing were labeled bourgeois or worse: contras. All those agrarian policies could have ended up being accepted if the vanguard had been willing to discuss them with people, as opposed to arguing with them and imposing the policies. Everything was done by decree. Not even the Sandinista Assembly discussed the peasant issue in depth to reach a consensus.
Those were the lands where the war of the eighties began. The peasantry in those areas were now experiencing a second violent effort to get rid of them or integrate them into a different system, and had resisted in an effort to remain peasant farmers. That’s why it’s correct to speak of “Resistance.” Because it all started with resistance born of a profound awareness that they wanted to keep on being peasants, working their own land and living off it. Being called “bourgeoisie” was felt as a huge offense. There had been a profound peasant identity in those lands of north-central Nicaragua and it wasn’t long before there was a war of resistance to conserve that identity. But those peasants were already considered counterrevolutionary even before they organized against the revolution.
The Coast peoples demanded While that was happening in the north-central part of the country, something similar was happening in the Caribbean Coast. Given that the 1961 invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs had taken off from Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, the revolutionary vanguard had been convinced from the first moment that the counterrevolution would come from there. That conviction was only increased by the fact that there had been large US lumber, shellfish and mining companies in the area. As a result, coast people were contras by definition.
respect for their identity too
What came from the Caribbean Coast wasn’t the expected counterrevolution, but rather a similar sort of resistance to the peasants, only in this case involving indigenous peoples demanding recognition of their identity or self-determination. There too the conflicts started early. I remember the first blow-up was in 1980, during the literacy crusade in native languages. Revolutionary state officials wanted to use the churches, a sacred place for the population, for the classes. That triggered the discontent. Not knowing what symbols are important to different peoples leads to errors. The revolution was soon perceived as an aggressor against their own identity and the Miskitu population began to call any military person or official of the revolutionary State “piricuaco,” which means “rabid dog” in Miskitu.
The official line about “the Contra” Obviously the revolution didn’t invent the Contra. Any revolution produces a counterrevolution and that was even truer in the geopolitical scheme of the bipolar world in which the Nicaraguan revolution was born, when one of the poles, the United States, wanted to stop Nicaragua becoming a “second Cuba” at all cost. To assure that, it applied a “low-intensity war” model, designed to wear the revolution out until it was defeated. The Sandinista Army’s basic military response was the Cuban strategy, based on the idea that if every revolution provokes a counterrevolution the revolution must stamp it out. The error of that Manichean strategy was aggravated by the revolutionary vanguard’s absolute ignorance of the rural social make-up and the peasantry’s characteristics. They say that ignorance is the mother of imprudence and in that case the ignorance was huge.
The official line for many years was that the Contra was made up of Somocista Guardsmen who had fled in disarray in the last days of the insurrection and reorganized outside our borders; that the United States had pulled them together and launched them against the revolution; that the peasants themselves were dedicated to building the revolution, planting with one hand and carrying a rifle in the other to combat the Contra. The official line defined the Contra as an exogenous phenomenon financed by the United States and based in Honduras. Alejandro Bendaña’s book Una Guerra campesina (A Peasant War), published in 1991, was considered blasphemy because it forced us to recognize that the Contra was an endogenous phenomenon and that the Nicaraguan peasantry was organized in its ranks.
Another idea accepted and repeated in the eighties was that the Contra had never achieved dominion over any territory and was constantly on the run accompanied by the “sound made by their rough sandals” as soon as the Army arrived. Not true. From the very beginning there was a serious confrontation between the peasantry and the revolutionary State. Many peasants resisted the revolution’s measures, first with armed bands, later with task forces and ultimately with an organized army. The revolutionary vanguard made it easy for the United States to implement its strategy of militarily wearing down the revolution because the FSLN pushed its way onto the peasant playing field knowing absolutely nothing about the rules of the game there.
The profile of the There were armed bands in those territories as early as August-September 1979. We investigated them on the ground with the Jesuit anthropologist Ricardo Falla in response to a request from the revolutionary government, which had already detected the existing malaise. Those first armed bands were made up of discontented peasants and small farmers who later would become the heart of the Contra. They and all their leaders came from the Pantasma valley, Wiwilí, Quilalí, all the passes in the zone called the “Pocket of Las Segovias” in the analyses of the revolution. And all were peasants; their origins were totally different than those who made up the political commission. Except for Enrique Bermúdez, who was always around in the Honduran camps, the Contra’s urban politicians were never at the battlefronts.
The genuine protagonists, whose who took up arms in resistance against the revolution to continue being peasants were young farmers of around 27 years old. In the patriarchal cattle-raising and coffee-growing peasant families, when these male youths, known as mancuerneros, came of age, they would strike out on their own. With their father’s blessing and a few cattle inherited from him, they would herd them through the territory in search of new lands to settle and begin their own accumulation process.
Spreading the word That traditional cattle-raising system favored the formation of the Contra because its logic is to be continually on the move from one place to another. As young mancuerneros drove the cattle from one rural district to another looking for grazing land, they spread messages: “Hey, they confiscated Fortunato Castro in Pantasma, and he only had a hectare and a half.” Response: “So does that mean they’re going to take my land away too?” Then someone else would chime in: “They said my father was a contra and took his land away…” All it took was to propagate that news, that uncertainty, for more and more young men to start joining behind them, until they’d eventually become chiefs of task forces.
against the revolution’s errors
These peasants rapidly began winning over district after district, taking territorial hegemony away from the FSLN and confronting the revolution. For example, we were studying the progress of the Jorge Salazar Commando Unit, led by the Sobalvarro boys and the Talaveras, all of them mancuerneros; in the lapse of only 15 days they had gained control over 15 districts. We had handmade maps of how the districts were “falling” one after the other, and presented them to the FSLN leadership. It was very hard for them to buy what we were saying. We analyzed the FSLN’s first military offensive, Plan Llovizna, in which they had thrown 500 peasant men and only 2 women in jail. This showed that the revolutionary vanguard was also unaware of the key role peasant women were playing in organizing the Resistance. It had assumed they weren’t capable of any role, but they played brilliant ones.
With the bands controlling so many rural districts, the US government was able to link together and structure the peasant uprising, converting it into an authentic mobile army. It wasn’t a guerrilla war; it was a real army. It had bases in Honduras for training, resupplying and resting up, but the troops didn’t just cross back to attack from time to time; they also had bases and corridors inside Nicaragua, through which they could move to attack and could also rest. I remember asking a pregnant girl in Pantasma, Jinotega, who her baby’s father was. “It’s Venganza’s,” she told me proudly. Venganza (revenge) was the alias of a contra comandante operating around there. The ambushes against Sandinista Army troops in nearby Zompopera can’t be explained without accepting that it was a Contra R&R zone.
UNAG understood the rural world betterA number of peasants were even frequently UNAG members in the morning and combatants with the Contra in the evening. I had seen that same phenomenon, that double militancy, in Angola.
UNAG played an important role in moderating the situation. It managed to get the category of “patriotic producers” and “homespun peasants” accepted, helping to break through the Manichean analysis. It also helped explain a series of desertions in the Sandinista Army reserve battalions, including a case I researched: the history of Pantasma’s Battalion 84-27, which deserted in full in 1984. The deserters were punished but UNAG said they were farmers and argued the need to talk to them, not wipe them out.
Recognizing that some of its farmers were rebels, UNAG sent people out into the mountains to put up signs that said: “Brother, lay down your weapons.” “Brothers, we’re not going to punish you.” And it worked: it allowed those farmers to recover their dignity in their own districts, because they had been called contras or bourgeois, which had been a major offense to their dignity. UNAG recovered a lot of people that way, as did the Catholic Church. I recall that in one of those “De Cara al Pueblo” (Face the People) meetings, UNAG President Daniel Núñez told President Daniel Ortega he would have to have to recognize that 40% of UNAG’s people were up in arms against the revolutionary government.
A brief chronology of the warWe can define three stages in the war of Nicaraguan Resistance. The first, from 1979 to 1982, was the stage of armed bands, which we could call a “covert” war. By 1983 a formal, well-armed army began to be organized with a lot of participation by women in important roles. The revolutionary government immediately launched a military offensive against the peasantry. And I do mean against the peasantry, because the revolutionary vanguard generalized the perception that wearing “rubber boots” and smelling like a peasant was synonymous with being a contra. In the imaginary of that military offensive the peasants as a whole became the “enemy.”
That stage of open war extended until 1985, by which time the Contra had transformed into a mobile army and the military escalation increased. Regional commando units were organized, more or less corresponding to the peasant territory they controlled: the Nicarao Commando Unit (San Fernando, Ciudad Antigua and Telpaneca), the José Dolores Estrada Commando Unit (San Juan de Limay, La Trinidad and Estelí), the Segovia Commando Unit (Yalí and San Juan del Río Coco), the Diriangén Commando Unit (Wiwilí, Quilalí and Pantasma), the Rafaela Herrera Commando Unit (Bocay, Cerro Kilambé and El Cuá) and the Jorge Salazar Commando Unit (Matiguás, Waslala and Río Blanco and two years later Boaco, Chontales and Nueva Guinea). The heads of those units were all farmers, coffee growers and cattle ranchers, sons of pioneers who had pushed into the agricultural frontier and turned those regions to agriculture.
The third stage of the war began in 1986, when we can speak of a military standoff and the beginning of the FSLN’s political defeat. That last stage culminated in 1990 with the peace agreement and partial disarmament, although a new stage of rearming soon began.
It needs to be recalled that in early 1985, when the war was on the rise, the FSLN decided on what it called the Single General Plan. It was conceived of and directed by Luis Carrión, then a member of the party’s National Directorate and deputy minister of the interior. He also organized analysis and training workshops with the cadres of the FSLN, Ministry of the Interior and Army. The starting point of the reflection was recognition that the war wasn’t organized from outside, but was a social phenomenon born of political errors and failures in interpreting peasant reality and cosmovision, and of ignorance of the social structure in the countryside. In those workshops, it was openly admitted that they were dealing with a civil war. But those reflections didn’t get out to the whole population.
It was evident in that year that the Contra was winning the war. It was still a time in which the FSLN wasn’t monolithic and there were various versions and interpretations, but it’s noteworthy that the person who stood up and said that what was happening in the countryside had to be analyzed differently was a deputy minister of the interior, not the agriculture minister. Carrión and his people initiated a titanic, courageous labor of demonstrating what was going on, making it understood where the militaristic policy of considering the “rubber booted” peasant as the enemy had led us. It was an important process. The plan also involved all the social ministries coordinating together with the army and police to win hearts and minds in those rural theaters of war, but it was late in coming.
Not even a pat on the backI want to go a little deeper into something that was a real discovery for us in our studies back in 1980, when we began researching the first armed bands. We found that those who took up arms against the revolution first were former guerrillas who had fought against Somocismo in the mountains, in the FSLN’s ranks. Why did they turn against it? Because of the “poor pay,” the mistreatment from the revolutionary vanguard once in power. They felt offended, taken for granted; they even heard that the vanguard suspected their families of being contras and felt aggrieved… Franklin had fought with the FSLN and shortly afterward they ordered him back into the mountains to fight again. And his cattle? Sending a young person up into the mountains isn’t the same as pulling a peasant off his farm. It was an imposition, an authoritarian militaristic vision.
Many of those who took up arms early on felt hurt by that lack of acknowledgement and appreciation. I remember one man from Pancasán who had been a historical collaborator and felt “poorly rewarded.” He and others in that area insisted that they “didn’t want anything from the revolution,” weren’t going to ask for anything… All they wanted was to be recognized, taken into account, thanked… Others said they thought they’d be incorporated into the Sandinista Popular Army once the struggle against Somoza was over, but they saw that those being accepted were people they felt hadn’t earned the right.
When I began to investigate, as a tough-minded sociologist I expected to find weightier arguments, greater grievances. But these were the sentiments I found so strongly in the first wave of discontent: they didn’t take me into account; they didn’t recognize me; they didn’t even say anything to me… The FSLN learned very late the consequences of its ingratitude toward historical collaborators, those who wanted nothing more than recognition, a thank-you, a simple pat on the back. By the time some recognition came later on, many of them had already taken up arms against the revolution.
The “discard” policy? The history of the revolution is full of “poor pay.” Perhaps it’s a cultural heritage that comes from the cattle-raising logic of discard. In cattle ranching they talk about “discard” animals, a little like the machista man who discards his woman when she gets old, when she’s no longer so pretty.
That discard culture is very deeply rooted in the country. It’s even easily visible as a policy in the current government, which puts in officials and removes them—ministers included—whenever it feels like it, with no explanation or even any face-saving excuses.
Ignorance of the real “national question” In 1987, after years of tenacious struggle, the young Miskitu fighters who fought in different organizations that eventually joined together in a US-financed army they called Yatama, came away with an impressive victory when the Autonomy Statute for the Atlantic Coast was passed into law. The concept of at least some of the Miskitus at that time was a national one, the notion of the Yapti Tasba nation. That was why they went to war and why they continue fighting today, while others did so for the same reason mestizo peasants further inland did: disrespect of their identity.
The first peace agreement to put an end to that civil war was signed in 1985 by the FSLN with a sizable breakaway group from what two years later became the Yatama army, today a regional indigenous political party. With the help of some intellectuals, the FSLN had the capacity to understand the demand for self-determination and the ethnic problem posed in the Caribbean region. It must be recognized that in this the FSLN was a pioneer, because Marxist-Leninist vanguards are characterized by ignorance of what is called “the national question” and of ethnic problems.
The same thing happened in Angola. What were really wars in defense of national and ethnic identity were interpreted as fratricidal wars. The conflicts in Africa today continue to be interpreted that way, when they are actually rooted in the fact that the Europeans split nations of people into three or four separate countries. The FSLN came to grasp the ethnic demand after a cruel and ferocious war. It must be remembered that one of the first demands of the Yatama army in the peace agreements was the repatriation of the remains, the bones, of Miskitus who had died in Honduras during the exodus triggered by the war. Here we are, decades later and that demand has yet to be fulfilled. Given the traditional racism, the symbolic significance of that demand still isn’t understood.
The 1990 peace agreement In 1990, with the government of the revolutionary vanguard now out of power, a peace agreement was signed with the peasant army that by then called itself the Nicaraguan Resistance. Franklin, the mancuernero of Kilambé who felt let down by the FSLN and took up arms as early as 1979, signed in the name of the Resistance.
At the time of the disarmament, the Sandinista Popular Army had 72,000 troops and the Ministry of the Interior 5,100, while the Nicaraguan Resistance had 22,000. Resistance is a much more appropriate term than Contra, as its forces were labeled not only by the FSLN but also by the media around the world. The term is short for counterrevolutionary, but that peasantry didn’t have another model; it wasn’t proposing something other than the revolutionary State. What motivated and mobilized them was that they simply didn’t like what the revolution had to offer and even more importantly that it forced it on them. That was the extent of that peasantry’s ideology; they didn’t get all tangled up in another “narrative.” They just wanted to produce the way they always had, to continue being peasants.
Those peace agreements were reached after the FSLN lost the February 1990 elections. Dora María Téllez has said that in the FSLN’s Departmental Congress in Managua in June 1991 Daniel Ortega had admitted that “it’s not true we lost the peasantry, because we never had it.” Whether or not he actually said it, the statement itself is true: the FSLN never had the peasant social base. Orlando Núñez, director of CIERA in the eighties, used to say that the FSLN “was losing its peasant face,” but as a revolutionary government it really never had one. The peasantry of what was then the agricultural frontier resisted from its first measures onward.
A short-lived peaceSo what did we see after the “end of the war”? Throughout the nineties many of those who had disarmed in 1990 repeatedly rearmed and disarmed because they were upset about the failure to comply with the agreements signed. At first the rearming was mainly by “recompas,” who were Sandinista Popular Army veterans of peasant farmer origins. Soon former members of the Resistance and Yatama were the main ones rearming, always due to failure of the successive governments to live up to the promises made at the time of the original disarmament. They took up arms again, aware that the State only responds when threatened with weapons. Just as is happening today.
Between 1990 and 1997 armed recompa groups formed, calling themselves the National Self-Defense Movement, the Nora Astorga Northern Front, the Armed Movement of Worker Peasant Defense and the Armed Forces of Popular Liberation, among others. The armed “recontra” groups included the Democratic Forces of National Salvation, the 3-80 Northern Front, the Comandante Aureliano Front, the Benjamín Gómez Column and others. The 3-80 Northern Front also operated in the Mining Triangle, together with a grouping commanded by “Matías.”
In those years more than 300 armed rural bands were operating in Río Blanco, Estelí, Chontales, Nueva Segovia and Jinotega. All of them laid down their arms when agreements were signed and then took them up again later when they weren’t fulfilled. In 1993, for example, no fewer than 21,400 rearmed fighters demobilized, after the government agreed to “buy” 45,000 weapons and another 172,000 were recovered. In 1997, when President Violeta Chamorro, left office, the government decreed the end of the “pacifying” of the countryside, yet the very next year the Army broke up 57 armed bands and the following year another 44.
“Violent pacification” The official version is that the Chamorro administration had successfully pacified the country and those who had taken up arms had peacefully turned them all in, after which the weapons were doused with gasoline, set on fire then buried in the Peace Park built in Managua to commemorate the end of the decade of war. The pacification was even sealed by Pope John Paul II on his second visit to Nicaragua in 1966.
Given what we’re seeing going in in those areas today, what we’ve really had since the nineties in my opinion is a “violent pacification.” It’s a period of the nation’s life that hasn’t been well studied, in which the State has acted militarily, exercising ongoing institutional violence to annihilate any rearmed peasants who resist accepting what the government decides and does.
Many did turn in their weapons in those years, but given that the Chamorro, Alemán and Bolaños governments all signed agreements they failed to honor, cyclical rearming would begin again. In those years some 47 agreements were signed and largely went unfulfilled.
Those who demobilized feel the different governments just played with them, made fun of them. Even the population removed from the war, people who live in the more densely populated Pacific, began to say that the ex-contras were just slackers who had already been given everything but were never satisfied…
The FUAC: A terrible story of military logicThe case of the rearmed movement called the Andrés Castro United Front marked a crucial moment in that cyclical rearmament-disarmament process. It was created in the Mining Triangle area in 1997 and between then and 2001, when the “violent pacification” reached its climax in that territory, we could see a continuous increase of the well-known phenomenon of rearmed peasants in resistance against the State. Tucson Lima, one of the FUAC chiefs, explained to me that its creation had a lot to do with the injustice felt by EPS soldiers of peasant origin when the Army’s plans to slash its size were imposed on them in the early nineties. Those discharged in the first round were the ones with the most class consciousness, the most Sandinista consciousness, who had lived by the motto “free homeland or death.” Tucson Lima had been one of those. He complained that the ones left in the EPS were the youngest, those with degrees and those of urban origin.
The people who joined the FUAC also included members of the self-defense cooperatives the Army had formed in the areas where the Contra circulated. They were peasants who became soldiers to defend the revolution, yet once it all ended, they felt abandoned, ignored. In the nineties, with the recomposition of the economy and society, this peasantry saw the natural resources—lumber, fishing, mining—being given out in capitalist concessions again, and the peasants being marginalized, demeaned. The FUAC came to the conclusion that all had been lost, that there was nothing to do, so it decided to rearm, starting with small armed bands.
What was the FUAC asking for? The social services they never had, the right to land, the right to credit… Those mid-level officers and soldiers who had been the heart of the Sandinista Popular Army, who fought the Resistance throughout the eighties and were demobilized and retired by force in the nineties, felt discarded and believed they had a role to play to reverse that situation. The FUAC’s discourse and objectives contained social demands to improve the living conditions not just of its members but also of the people from those communities. There was a determination to defend what they understood to have been the conquests of the revolution, which they felt had been lost with the change of government in 1990, and a decision to fill the vacuum of power in the area where they were operating.
In other words, they weren’t just resisting; they had a social vision. Yet the Army of Nicaragua attacked them as if they were delinquent groups, not former comrades in arms. That war led to atrocious violence on both sides: the FUAC bands took over highways and killed people in an implacable territorial logic, cutting off heads and marking their territory with them.
In 1997 a prolonged and conflictive first demobilization of the FUAC got underway. Five agreements signed on economic and social demands led to a partial disarmament. The next year FUAC’s members returned to civilian life and created the FUAC Foundation, which received support from international cooperation, but the Alemán government didn’t honor its part of the bargain so in 1999 the FUAC renewed its armed operations. In June 2000 the Army responded by militarizing the Mining Triangle, employing a strictly military logic in its “plan to secure the countryside” by eradicating the bands and their members. It didn’t consider finding out what had happened, trying to convince, or making alliances. Annihilation was imposed as state policy.
Following the “Trojan Horse” operation in 2001 and “Plan Seal” in March 2002, the Army was able to declare the Mining Triangle territory free of bands. The FUAC chiefs were killed and much of the peasant social base the FUAC had won over fled the Army, taking refuge in the Bosawás Reserve.
The consequences of all this in that peasant zone included further deterioration of the social fabric, an increased feeling of absolute defenseless by the peasantry and a loss of the Army’s legitimacy. And in the end, the lands of the self-defense cooperatives in Siuna were appropriated by people who had never defended them during the war of the eighties.
So what’s happening today? This has been a very quick summary of what happened with the peasantry of the north-central part of the country and the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean Coast between 1979 and 2002. I offer it because what happened then explains what’s happening today and what could happen in the future. The peasants’ struggle was never to receive crumbs but to defend rights: their right to identity, language and territory, to continue being who they are. Yet the response, first by the revolutionary State and later by the neoliberal State, has been offensive and the policy has been to wipe them out.
Are there real rearmed groups again in the northern mountains? If you listen to the language used by the Army today, it sounds very similar to yesterday’s. It is once more calling the groups that may have rearmed “delinquent bands.” But before pigeonholing them as bands and launching a military offensive against them, has it asked them who they are, what they want and what they’re fighting for? Nearly forty years on the FSLN still hasn’t stopped to think seriously about why the Contra went to war. History is being repeated yet again in peasant sectors that believe the only way to defend their identity is by rearming, in a process that has been cyclical in Nicaragua.
We don’t know what’s going on with the peasantry there and no one’s saying. All the demobilized veterans from both sides of the war of the eighties who were linked to the countryside are now older, many of them ill. They’re considered dross, expendable. The peasantry that has played and is still playing such a basic role in this society is forgotten. There are no policies for them; the Ministry of Agriculture has been slashed to a minimum expression and the studies and investigations remain at the level of macroeconomic analyses. The only thing presented in those reports are data on how much is being invested in livestock; there’s nothing about what’s happening to small peasant cattle ranches, nothing about people’s real problems.
Back when I was doing field research about the situation, I had trouble understanding the extreme sensitivity Nicaraguan people have to how they are treated. Their sense of dignity and identity is very deeply rooted, but it was very hard for me to recognize the weight that had in a political conflict that so quickly turned into a military one. I finally came to fully appreciate that the peasantry simply has no use for a system that imposes its rule and mistreats them.
Sooner or later…Sandinista imposition still perturbs the Nicaraguan peasants. Worse yet, the government has now imposed FSLN mayors in those same areas of resistance. They previously had Liberal mayors they recognized and had elected at least until 2008 and in some cases 2012. Now they don’t even have that.
I can confirm that this treatment upsets the peasantry because I’ve continued interviewing the old Resistance leaders of the eighties. They still don’t recognize that hegemony, because they are convinced they won the war of the eighties, or at least took it to a draw. At a minimum they know the FSLN lost politically and is now governing via electoral frauds.
The figure of Daniel Ortega will never consolidate a social base in the countryside; quite the contrary. Nor should there be any confusion about who gets the hens or the little pigs from the Zero Hunger program’s productive voucher. The peasantry we’re talking about doesn’t accept crumbs, but struggles for rights.
In the areas where the war of the eighties played itself out, there’s still resistance against an authoritarian system that now calls itself “Christian, socialist and solidary.” It’s being reborn in the children and grandchildren of those who resisted before. Although the Nicaraguan Resistance as a political organization continues to fracture, with one leader or another being bought off, what persists is the sense of resistance to authoritarian abuse, the sense of belonging.
Nicaraguans have a tendency to swallow abuse and put up with injustice, poverty and general misfortune for a very long time, but there invariably comes a moment when they sharpen their machete. I’m not determinist, because I believe people and society can change, but in this society we can recognize cycles that don’t change, that keep being repeated. We have to recognize that the State hasn’t changed in its disrespect for the peasantry, and I believe that peasantry has been accumulating rage. It has experienced yet another wave of usurpation of lands and is brooding over it in silence, like a volcano that could one day erupt again.
María Angélica Fauné is a sociologist and researcher.