The ignominious end of Edén Pastora
Since 1978 perhaps right up to today,
no figure from the Sandinista revolution has had
greater international projection than Edén Pastora.
Reaction here and abroad to his death from COVID-19
shows that there was still mileage in the questionable myth
of him as a romantic hero, even though he was always a man of war,
of guns, a firm believer in resorting to physical and verbal violence.
Former FSLN guerrilla comandante Mónica Baltodano,
now a prominent activist opponent of the Ortega regime,
offers a brief biography of this controversial figure
that seeks to provide a more realistic balance
The death of guerrilla comandante Edén Pastora Gómez, alias Comandante Cero, from COVID-19 on June 16 attracted both national and international media attention. At the time the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship was busy concealing the at least 1,400 other deaths already caused by the pandemic in our small country of 6 million and taking no measures to control its rampant spread.
What will history
say about him?
Edén is one of the best-known figures of the Sandinista Popular Revolution of 1979. Two years before its triumph, this man of Conservative ideas joined the Tercerista (Third Way), a.k.a. Insurrectionist, tendency of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). (Several years before its reunification in 1978, the FSLN had split into three tendencies: the other two were known as Proletarian and Prolonged Popular War).
In August 1978, Edén headed up an incredibly audacious operation that had an enormous impact: taking over the National Palace while the Nicaraguan parliament was in session, with all the representatives inside. This intrepid action resulted in the freeing of numerous important Sandinista political prisoners detained by the Somoza dictatorship and provided the revolutionary struggle with a great propaganda blow.
Pastora subsequently led the Southern Front, which operated from neighboring Costa Rica. It was the most famous front in the insurrectionary fight in those months before the July 1979 victory. In June, it kept part of the Somoza dictatorship’s elite National Guard forces bogged down while the FSLN’s guerrilla fighters from the other fronts took many of the country’s most important cities before finally advancing on Managua in July.
But beyond the most publicized episodes of his life story, what was the actual path Pastora’s life took? How did that story really end? What will history highlight? His anti-Somoza actions, the spectacular storming of the National Palace, the interests he served, or his final role as a pro-Ortega paramilitary member and human rights violator?
A fighter with a fragmented history
While Pastora was undoubtedly an anti-Somocista fighter, he certainly had a fragmented history. Starting at the age of 23, he was part of the Sandino Revolutionary Front (FRS) between 1959 and 1960. In 1962 he appeared fleetingly in the unification between the nascent National Liberation Front (FLN) and the FRS, but chose not to participate in the organization that would later take the name LSLN, considering its original members to be too Communist.
Under the 1963 amnesty, he got involved in the presidential campaign of Conservative Party candidate Fernando Agüero. Then in 1967, he helped search for weapons when a sector of the Conservative leadership thought it could split the National Guard and force Somoza to give up his presidential aspirations. Pastora was captured on that very mission a day before the Somocista National Guard killed 300 people demonstrating in favor of Agüero in Managua.
Freed by another amnesty, he was contacted by the FSLN and for several months allowed his farm called El Pilón to be used to train young recruits. When this was discovered by the National Guard, Pastora escaped and sought asylum in the Venezuelan Embassy. He spent a while in Switzerland before moving to Guadalajara, Mexico, where he had started to study medicine prior to 1959.
An anti-Communist Conservative
who had a way with words
In 1971 he got back in touch with the FSLN and entered Nicaragua to join the guerrilla struggle in the northern mountains, which by then was being led by Henry Ruiz, alias Comandante Modesto. But he was there only briefly, due to differences with the leadership. As a result, he withdrew totally from the anti-Somoza fight until contacted again in 1977 by Sergio Ramírez Mercado.
The FSLN’s pragmatic Tercerista tendency had emerged the previous year, with a leadership that included the brothers Humberto and Daniel Ortega. It proposed a bold policy of alliances, opening the FSLN up to the incorporation of new militants. It also considered it important to “tone down” the image of the FSLN—until then seen as a Marxist organization—by visibly incorporating Conservative figures, businesspeople and declared anti-Communists, among others.
In this context, Edén Pastora was an ideal figure for the group given his recognized Conservative and anti-Communist history, but also because his striking personality and the ease with which he managed the press facilitated the kind of projection the FSLN needed abroad at a time when the right conditions were believed to exist for an insurrection inside the country.
Contacts with the CIA
After the revolutionary triumph in 1979, Pastora was vice minister of the interior and then vice minister of defense and national head of the Sandinista Popular Militias.
Two years later, in July 1981, he resigned from his posts and went to Panama, criticizing the way the revolution was being run and saying he planned to go fight for the liberation of other peoples. In April 1982, he openly declared himself an enemy of the Sandinista Popular Revolution and initiated relations with the CIA, which had been promoting armed anti-revolutionary movements in Nicaragua since 1981.
As part of Ronald Reagan’s reactionary plans across the region, Edén Pastora organized the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE), opening up an armed front in the south of Nicaragua. All of this took place in the context of the counterrevolution, or “Contra” as it became commonly known.
On May 6, 2000, I interviewed Pastora about the attack on the National Palace in 1978 for a radio program I directed for several years aimed at rescuing the historical memory. Days later, mothers of fallen Sandinista fighters criticized me for having had him on our program. They had never forgotten the results of ARDE attacks along the San Juan River, directed by Pastora.
In June 1983 envoi reported on Pastora’s operations in this area as follows: “Pastora announced that his armed struggle would take full force on May 1 [International Workers Day]. On May 1, ARDE kidnapped and cut the throats of 10 campesinos; among these were adult education teachers, UNAG [National Union of Farmers and Ranchers] leaders and Delegates of the Word. ARDE also ambushed and killed three campesinos on their way to the May 1stactivities and two members of the Ministry of the Interior on the San Juan River. The ‘liberation war’ had a questionable beginning.”
A candidate for different parties
The CIA pressured ARDE to join the Democratic Nicaraguan Force (FDN), the “Contra” organization specifically created by the United States. When Pastora refused, because he wouldn’t be just another subordinate to former Somocista National Guardsmen, the CIA stopped funding him. So in 1986 he announced he was leaving ARDE and requested asylum in Costa Rica, where he once again dedicated himself to his small fishing business.
In May 1987, Edén Pastora publicly recognized that the CIA had supplied him with weapons and accused Lieutenant Coronel Oliver North, who was directly implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, of being behind an attempt on his life at La Penca in 1984 that left 7 dead and 22 wounded [a number of them international journalists]. That operation is now known to have been directed by FSLN Interior Minister Tomás Borge.
In 1989 Pastora returned to Nicaragua to support the Social Christian Party in the 1990 elections. In 1996, he was the presidential candidate for the Democratic Action Movement, although he was barred from running by the Supreme Electoral Council. In 2000, Pastora ran for mayor of Managua and in 2006 he tried for President again, this time for Alternative for Change, run by Evangelical groups, whose 0.27% of the vote left the party without even any representatives in the National Assembly.
Daniel Ortega’s functionary
The 2006 elections returned Daniel Ortega to the presidency with just 37.8% of the votes. As a result, Pastora placed himself at Ortega’s service again, taking the post of residential delegate for the dredging of the San Juan River, which he said would increase the volume of that important border river with Costa Rica. In 2010 he dredged a channel in the Harbour Head area, triggering a conflict with the neighboring government, which sued Nicaragua in the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The Court ruled in Costa Rica’s favor and forced Nicaragua to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation for the damages caused.
During his years of service to the Ortega dictatorship, Pastora became characterized as a shameless liar who virulently attacked and discredited Sandinista dissidents, calling them traitors who had sold out to the empire. He unscrupulously twisted history, attributing to Daniel Ortega an exceptional protagonism in the fight against the Somoza dictatorship that was not borne out by the facts. Ortega responded to these favors with public posts and perks, and in 2008 even awarded Pastora the Order of Augusto C. Sandino, the highest award in Nicaragua. At the same time, Ortega rewrote Pastora’s personal history, editing out the services rendered to the CIA and the Contras and his responsibility for the murder of young Army reservists in Río San Juan.
Pastora’s return to the FSLN and subordination to its caudillo were neither strange nor surprising. When Ortega took power again in 2007 his objective’s bottom line was—and still is—to keep hold of that power whatever the cost. This implied at a certain point the complete abandonment of the principles, values and project that had embodied the revolution of 1979, notwithstanding its great errors. The FSLN’s mutation from a revolutionary, emancipating and transforming force into an apparatus of repression and power at the service of Ortega and his inner circle started in the 1990s and was consolidated when it took over the government in 2007.
Upon returning to the executive branch, Ortega and his brand of ruling quickly came to an understanding with big capital, transnationals, the Washington Consensus policies, and reactionary sectors of the Catholic Church. It engaged in a policy of exchanging power quotas that allowed different sectors to close their eyes, ears and mouths to the party’s unbridled race for absolute control over all state institutions as well as to its corrupt practices, electoral frauds and repression.
To give just one example of this policy of alliances, we only need recall that Ortega’s vice presidential running mate in the 2006 elections was Jaime Morales Carazo, who had been part of the Contra directorate and a privileged CIA contact. In 1995-96, Carazo had also been campaign chief for the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), the hegemonic party of the Nicaraguan Right, and a personal friend of that party’s strongman leader Arnold Alemán, who would become such a corrupt President for the five years starting in 1997. Ortega and Alemán came to a quick understanding in the infamous Pact of 1999, through which they divvied up the State branches between them.
As can be seen, Ortega’s postulates, alliances and general power project for this phase didn’t contradict the conceptions held by Pastora, who went over to the Contras in 1982 precisely because he didn’t like the revolution of the 1980s and the values it espoused.
Organizing Ortega’s paramilitaries
After 11 years of the Ortega regime, the population took to the streets in a civic uprising after FSLN shock troops, acting in complicity with the Police, used excessive violence to repress limited protests on April 18, 2018, against social security reforms that particularly affected the elderly.
That essentially peaceful and independent uprising took the Ortega regime by surprise and it responded by having its shock forces, paramilitaries and snipers kill protesters. By May 30, 109 people had been killed, 1,400 injured and 190 imprisoned, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts that worked for several months in Managua that year.
In response to these murders, and as a way to exert pressure to force Ortega to resign, people also erected highway roadblocks and neighborhood barricades in different parts of the country. Ortega bought himself more time by calling a national dialogue in May organized by Nicaragua’s Catholic Episcopal Conference and then ordered brutal “clean-up operations” in June and July to dismantle—regardless of the human cost—the barricades and roadblocks the population had put up ad were defending.
With the compliance of the Army, this vile work was done by combined forces made up of police and para-state groups supplied with weapons of all calibers. This increased the number of deaths to 328, including 24 children, while thousands more were injured and over 76,000 were forced into exile, according to a 2019 report by the Special Follow-up Mechanism for Nicaragua, also created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Edén Pastora publicly boasted of having been one of the organizers and instigators of these paramilitary groups. As he himself confessed in various official media interviews and television programs, he supported Ortega in linking up and mobilizing historical Sandinista fighters to attack residents defending the roadblocks with little more than rocks and slingshots.
With no shame at all, Pastora complained that that they had to wait 55 days for Ortega to give them the “sign” to openly attack citizens with military-grade weapons. According to him, Ortega’s orders were to “Let them have it with everything.”
Similarly, Pastora became one of the official TV channels’ favorites for attacking the Nicaraguan people’s anti-government struggle, accusing anyone protesting of being a “coup-monger.” He played an important role for the pro-Ortega communications apparatus as the vast majority of historical Sandinista figures from the seventies and eighties had long broken with Ortega. Among the best remembered of the many threats mouthed by Pastora were those made in interviews with the CNN Spanish-language channel and Nicaragua’s Channel 10 against the bishops who supported the April 2018 civic insurrection, including the warning that “Bullets go through cassocks.”
History will not absolve him
Serving the interests of Ortega’s rule, Pastora once again chose the path of armed conflict, right up to his final days. However, unlike in the seventies and eighties when there was first a context of revolutionary struggle against a dictatorship and then a war between two armed groups, on this occasion he chose to openly support and promote a government’s cruel armed repression of masses of civilians who were demanding—and continue to demand—the end of an authoritarian regime and profound changes in Nicaragua.
This will undoubtedly be how the vast majority of Nicaraguans will remember Edén Pastora and for which history will surely never absolve him.