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University of Oklahoma Press
The Real Contra War: Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua

The Real Contra War: Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua

by Timothy C. Brown


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806132525
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 03/15/2001
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Timothy C. Brown is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. From 1987 to 1990, he was senior liaison to the Contras in Central America for the U.S. State Department.

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Chapter One


"A Whole Bunch of Really Pissed-off Peasants"

Iran-Contra, Oliver North, Congressional hearings, campus demonstrations, Contras as archvillains in movies and novels: Nicaragua's Contra War was at the center of a political fire storm second perhaps only to Vietnam in the passions it generated. At the height of the controversy, the Contras were regularly maligned as being no more than a mercenary gang of former Guardia soldier thugs of Nicaragua's odious Somoza dictatorship, hired by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under orders from reactionary American President Ronald Reagan to fight the popular Sandinista Revolution. In reality, more than 80 percent of the Contras were highland peasants and the remainder were tribal Indians or Black Creoles trying to defend themselves against what they saw as an attempt to destroy their ways of life.

    In public, President Ronald Reagan called the Contras Freedom Fighters, but in private, even Reagan and his insiders apparently shared the darker vision of the Contras. Even though the CIA spent about $250 million for covert military aid to the Contras and worked with them daily for almost a decade, it now seems evident that they never really understood who the Contras were. As a result, President Reagan, CIA Director William Casey, and the U.S. Congress also got it wrong. The media and academics did no better.

    Who were the "real Contras"? To begin with, they called themselves Comandos, not Contras, which was a propaganda pejorative coined bytheir enemies. The largest "Contra army"—there were five—was led primarily by former anti-Somoza Sandinistas, not former Somoza Guardia. Their war began in 1979 as a peasant uprising, not in 1982 as a Reagan initiative. They initially organized themselves under the name of MILPAS, for Militias Populares Anti-Sandinistas. For the first three years they fought with no outside help or interference. It was not until 1982, when the United States sponsored an alliance between the MILPAS and exiled former Somoza Guardia, that armed opposition to the Sandinistas came to world attention. The alliance was called the Fuerza Democratica Nicaragtüense, or FDN. It was not a Guardia-only movement, but an uneasy alliance between a large MILPAS army of peasants and a small Guardia staff.

    Two recent books by insiders demonstrate that even the best informed and most sympathetic Reaganites still do not understand the Contras. One of these books, A Twilight Struggle, is by Robert Kagan, a Reagan point man in the State Department on the Contras, speech writer for Secretary of State George Schultz, and deputy to the assistant secretary for Latin America. Kagan says that as part of his job he "helped carry out U.S. policy towards Nicaragua and, in particular, American support for the armed Nicaraguan Resistance [the Contras]." According to Kagan, the earliest Nicaraguans to take up arms against the Sandinista Revolution were a small number of former Somoza Guardia: "bands of marauders, fighting their own private wars in the northern countryside of Nicaragua ... foraging and cattle rustling, fighting only to stay alive and, on occasion, for revenge." He states further that "as late as February of 1981, clashes between opponents and the Sandinistas had taken violent form only on the Atlantic Coast."

    A Spy for All Seasons, by Duane Clarridge, dates the beginnings of the Contra War even later, to November 1981. Clarridge, the CIA's deputy director for operations (DDO) for Latin America from 1981 through 1984, states categorically that before then the only armed men opposing the Sandinistas were "five hundred rag-tag troopers along the Nicaragua-Honduras border ... remnants of the Nicaraguan National Guard" who were receiving some help from Argentina. As required by law, and drawing on this CIA analysis, Reagan's CIA director William Casey in much the same words formally informed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) that the CIA planned to initiate a covert project to organize these rag-tag troopers into a "500-man force as a carefully limited group whose target was the Cuban support structure in Nicaragua." Clarridge quotes President Reagan as later calling the Contra army that Casey had then produced the CIA's "vandals."

    Kagan, Clarridge, Casey, and Reagan had the very best information available to the U.S. government, and their comments presumably reflect what they thought were the facts. Nevertheless, they were wrong. The portrait they painted coincided much more closely with the Left's wartime propaganda image of the Contras than with the truth. This darker image nonetheless became the conventional wisdom on the Contras, even according to Reaganites.

    No one ever asked if the Black Legend was true; perhaps everyone from Reagan and his staff to the most learned academics was firmly convinced that they already knew the answer. Had everyone been less certain, someone just might have asked the Contra Comandos themselves who they were, and when, where, and why they had started fighting. Had they done so, they would have heard answers from the fighters that differed vastly from the myths. Perhaps then the image of the Contras would have changed from one of either devils or angels, to one more human, of simple peasant farmers trying to protect their tiny farms and families from outsiders they saw as trying to "revolutionize" them against their will. But no one asked, so the war and the accompanying political vitriol boiled for more than a decade, with both groups in equal ignorance.

    This study was undertaken to try to fill the void left by failure during the Contra War to ask the right questions of the right people. Albeit belatedly, I tried to answer four questions: Who were the first Comandos? Where were they from? When did their war start? Why did they rebel? At first the task seemed straightforward: contact as many veteran Comandos as possible, especially founding members, and ask them these questions. Then, as a cross-check, find non-Comandos with personal knowledge of the period and ask them the same questions. Finally, review their answers against existing records, look at the limited literature on the earliest Contra period, consider other contemporary records, derive some conclusions from this evidence, and write up the results. This approach, seemingly simple and direct, proved to be neither.

    One of the first Comandos with whom I spoke was a legendary guerrilla fighter, a very old man whom I knew only by his nom de guerre, "Abuelito," Great-Grandfather. A peasant from Nicaragua's mountainous north, Abuelito as a young man had joined Gen. Augusto César Sandino's rebel army to fight against the U.S. Marines. Years later he again joined the Sandinistas to fight Somoza. In 1979, he joined the Contras. Abuelito's answer would have startled Ronald Reagan and his point men:

Nosotros? Guardia? No'ombre! No somos mas que un aterro de campesinos bien encachimba'os! (Us, Guardia? No way! All we are is a whole bunch of really pissed-off peasants!)

    General Sandino's last Segovian highland campaigns began in 1918 and ended in 1933. By 1979 his surviving soldiers were getting on in age, so few joined the Contras. But the younger peasants who did join them were the children and grandchildren of the same peasantry that had made up almost all of Sandino's army. Without the support of these people—the forefathers of the Contras—Sandino would probably have been little more than a minor historical footnote in an obscure episode. With them he had an army and a popular support base.

    In addition to Abuelito, I located one other former Sandino soldier and Contra who turned out to have been exceptionally close to Sandino himself. This was his former chief bodyguard, Alejandro Pérez Bustamante. "Don Alejandro," as he is affectionately called, was nearing his eighties when the MILPAS war started and could not become a Comando, but he did head up a local correo network. Such networks, along with clandestine support committees, formed the massive support base that from the beginning sustained the MILPAS in the field. The correos were their extended eyes and ears and link to the clandestine committees in local peasant communities. They collected food, supplies, and other help from sympathizers and carried these items to the MILPAS. (Correos are discussed in greater detail in chapter 9).

    A number of peasant comarca leaders headed up such networks. Don Alejandro, who became an active Contra supporter after he was arrested and mistreated and after his wife was killed by the Sandinistas in 1980, was one of them. From 1918 to 1923, during Sandino's first Segovian campaign, he was personal bodyguard to Sandino, after whom the Sandinista Front was named. During my oral history interview with him, Don Alejandro insisted that "if Sandino had been alive during the Sandinista's Revolution, he would have been a Contra."

    By the time Casey's five hundred "rag-tag" former Guardia troopers finally arrived on the field of battle in mid-1982, Abuelito and thousands of peasants like him had been at war for three years, and dozens, if not hundreds, had died. From 1982 on, former Guardia, later defectors from Sandinista ranks, tribal Indians, and south Atlantic coast peasants did join the rebellion, and all played important roles. But because these later participants were far more accessible, visible and articulate than the peasants, their presence masked, even from the CIA, and certainly from Kagan and Clarridge, the underlying reality of who the "Contras" really were. Neither Reagan nor the rest of the world ever learned at the time that from their first stirring in May of 1979, until they laid down their arms in 1990, more than 96 percent of the troopers and combat leaders of Nicaragua's largest Contra army were simple mountain people: illiterate, unsophisticated, unworldly, perhaps, but also free, extremely attached to their land, homes, and families, and fiercely independent. Abuelito, not Casey, the director of the world's most powerful intelligence organization, best knew who the real "Contras" were. He also best understood that theirs was not the externally generated war that the world, Reagan, academia, and even Casey's CIA thought it had organized. They were just "really pissed-off peasants."

    Yet even Abuelito understated the case. As this study progressed, it became clear that the Comandos had merely been the armed tip of a much larger highland peasant movement they called La Resistencia. The highland war of 1979-90 was not only a local conflict fought by angry peasants. It was the armed manifestation of a much larger regional rebellion by a previously marginalized, faceless, yet historically, geographically, and ethnically homogeneous populace that comprised between 37 and 52 percent of Nicaragua's entire population. This hidden reality became clear only after the geographically highly concentrated nature of the war became apparent. Armed resistance efforts from the beginning were found to be centered in Nicaragua's Segovian highlands, as were the birthplaces and historical origins of the Comandos. Also highly concentrated were the size, form, and peasant origins of the popular movement that fed, clothed, and housed them, guided their units, supported their recruiting efforts and political activities, and kept them exceedingly well informed on their enemy's movements.

    The discovery that the Comandos had merely represented a much larger populace in rebellion caused me to look in much greater depth at the Segovian highlanders. They proved to be a homogeneous group with a shared history, pre-Columbian roots, and a centuries-old tradition of violent resistance to outsider challenges that sets them apart from other Nicaraguans. In fact, their history can be traced back more than four thousand years.

    Before the Spanish arrived, Nicaragua was home to two very different Indian peoples. The Pacific lowlands, heavily populated by sixteenth-century standards, were settled by Nahua-Mexica Indians who were the descendants of Nicaragua's first conquistadores, an Indian group that, beginning in the ninth century, had descended from the area of present-day Puebla, Mexico, into Central America and conquered the Pacific littoral all the way from Soconusco in present-day Chiapas, Mexico, to the Gulf of Nicoya in Costa Rica. Nahua societies were hierarchically organized with well-defined and rigid class structures. Their main settlements, with names like Managua, Imabíte, and Jalteba, took the form of city-states. The Nicaraguan Nahua were a distant but integral part of the Aztec empire, to which they were linked historically, culturally, and commercially. Their most valuable export was cacao beans, which served the empire as both a medium of exchange and a sumptuary item to be consumed only by members of the nobility. These were carried to the empire's capital, Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City, on the backs of human porters, or tamemes.

    Nicaragua's central highlands were also heavily populated but by a very different people. The highlanders were Chibchan Indians of South American origin who had been slowly drifting into Central America since before 2000 B.C. Unlike the Nahuas, they did not live in cities or even villages but rather on individual farms. The Chibchas also had no central government and apparently liked it that way, coming together under temporary war leaders only when threatened from the outside. Both Nicaragua's Nahuas and its Chibchas were heavily populated by sixteenth-century standards. Managua, for example, appears to have been larger than most contemporary Spanish cities and second in the New World in size only to Tenochtitlan. Given their levels of technology, the size of both groups was near the optimal carrying capacity of the lands they occupied. The Nahuas and Chibchas were also constantly at war against one another, the Nahuas pushing outwardly into Chibchan territory, the Chibchas reacting.

    The Spanish arrived in Nicaragua in 1523 and by 1526 had conquered the Pacific lowland Nahua. Within two decades, slaving and other forms of exploitation had reduced the Nahua population from more than one million to about 27,000. Those who survived became the base Indian population of Spanish colonial Nicaragua. In the highlands things went very differently. The Spanish did not immediately conquer the highlands and as a result most of the region's 350,000 to 400,000 Chibchas survived. For the next three centuries, until Nicaragua's independence in 1821, Spanish colonial Nicaragua was divided between the Spanish Pacific and Indian highlands, with Indian wars occurring regularly in the highlands. Over the centuries and under constant pressure from the outside, the highland Chibchas did slowly convert to Catholicism and lose their native language. But even as they were being transmuted under pressure from Indians into indios, the highlanders continued to violently resist Pacific lowlander domination.

    The last widely recognized highland Indian war took place in Matagalpa in the 1920s. But if the geography and history of the region, and the Comandos' self-identification as indios (discussed further in chapters 11-13) are taken into account, Nicaragua's unknown Contra war should probably be added to the list. Map 1 and table 1 illustrate my reasons for reaching this rather unexpected conclusion. Map 1 shows the following: (1) where Indian wars took place from 1526 through the 1950s, (2) where the first Contra groups emerged in 1979-81, and (3) the locations of the seventeen peasant communities to which 8,977 FDN Comandos returned in 1990-91. Table 1 lists the number of Comandos who returned to each of them. Maps 2-9, and tables 3-7, which appear in later chapters, further reinforce these findings. The Sandinistas and their sympathizers may have viewed the Comandos as useful counterrevolutionary foils, the Americans may have seen them as convenient surrogates in a late cold-war skirmish, and civilian politicians may have thought of them as useful stepping stones to power. But the peasants of Nicaragua's highlands saw them as their shield against yet one more in a thousand-year-old string of attempts at subjugation by outsiders. The highlander peasants were almost entirely illiterate and had long since been robbed of their own history. But to them the conflict the outside world called the Contra War was a struggle to defend their embattled identity. Although they did not speak in such modern academic terms, the responses of the Comandos to my interview questions made the same point in even more poignant terms.


FDN Returnees: Seventeen Top Locales

Rio Blanco
Santo Domingo
San José de Bocay
El Cuá Bocay
Santa Maria de Pantasma
San Juan del Rio Coco
Villa Sandino
Rancho Grande
Santo Tomas



Source: CIAV/OAS, Numero de Desmovilizados por Lugar de Nacimiento,
Managua, Computer run, 1993.

    The peasant Comandos made it clear to me that they saw themselves and the peasantry from which they had emerged as different from others in their country. They also saw themselves in "us-versus-them" terms and their war as not only a battle against a revolution, but also a peasant fight against urban Pacific lowland españoles, or Spaniards. Of forty-four Comandos formally interviewed, all but one identified himself or herself as indio. This strongly suggests that the highland war had an ethnic dimension and that the Comandos had consciously placed themselves on the Indian side of Nicaragua's principal ethnic divide.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Maps
List of Tables
1. Introduction: "A Whole Bunch of Really Pissed-Off Peasants"
2. The MILPAS War, 1979-1982
3. Dimas, Father of the Contras
4. The MILPAS of Irene Calderon
5. Other MILPAS Groups
6. Exile Paramilitary Groups, 1979-1982
7. Foreign Entanglements: Cuba, Costa Rica, and the CIA
8. Birth of the FND: A Guardia/MILPAS Alliance
9. Structure and Organization of the Highlander Resistance Movement
10. Women Comandos: Heroes, Combatants, and Comarca Leaders
11. Geography of the Rebellion
12. History of the Highlanders
13. The Highlanders' Social Place
14. The FDN Returns to its MILPAS Roots, 1988-1990
15. The Silent War against the Highlanders Continues, 1990-1996
16. From Poor Peasants to Power Bloc: The Difference Democracy Can Make
17. Resistance and Survival
18. Conclusions
A. Personal Report
B. Sample FDN Comando Personnel File
C. Samples from Chronological Message Files
D. Sample FDN Status of Forces Report
E. EPS arms Inventory and Request
F. Costa Rican Passport of Alejandro Martinez
Glossary: Terms and Abbreviations

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Everett Ellis Briggs

"[The Real Contra War] should be required reading for students of twentieth-century Latin American revolutionary theory and contemporary history.

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