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The Contra Contradiction

The supporters of the contras in the Reagan administration are demanding that they step up their military efforts and, also, that they improve their human rights record. Concern about the embarrassing political effects of continuing contra attacks against civilians was one factor in the recent efforts by the State Department, and particularly by Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, to dissuade Arturo. Cruz from resigning from the contra leadership. Cruz was known as a proponent of improving contra practices on human rights, and his departure would have suggested the triumph of those in the contra leadership most closely identified with abuses. On March 9 Cruz resigned saying he was still opposed to the Sandinistas but had given up on his efforts to transform the contra political organization into a “pluralistic structure in the service of a goal equally pluralistic.” Still, both military success and the appearance of respect for human rights are considered necessary if congressional support is to be maintained, and we may now expect that the administration will soon put forward new leaders who, it will claim, embody these goals. What ought to be apparent to those who have studied the war in Nicaragua, however, is that the contras cannot now meet both demands. They conflict with each other.

In pointing this out, I do not intend to argue that it is impossible for a guerrilla force to wage war aggressively without engaging in systematic abuses of human rights. Rather, I would argue that in the circumstances of this war, and in view of the way that the contras have fought it up to now, they have no choice but to engage in more and more attacks on civilians if they are to satisfy those, like Admiral William Crowe, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who demand from them “some kind of success.” In his press conference of February 12 at the Pentagon, Admiral Crowe followed that demand with a pointed warning when he said: “I don’t know of anybody that would ask the American public to go along indefinitely without progress.”

The connection for the contras between demonstrating success and abuses of human rights can be seen in the ways they have been fighting in the south-central region of Nicaragua—in the departments of Boaco and Chontales and around Nueva Guinea in the Zelaya South Department. In this sparsely populated region the contras have achieved their greatest military success. Many of the residents are ranchers and, by Nicaraguan standards, they are moderately prosperous. Unlike most urban Nicaraguans and many poorer peasants in other parts of the country, they did not suffer particularly under Somoza. Many of them have been adversely affected by the economic policies of the Sandinistas, particularly the bureaucratic regulations that have damaged their ability to market their produce, and they resent them. The Sandinistas have contributed to their own unpopularity in this region by arresting hundreds of peasants suspected of providing support to the contras and by mistreating many of the people they detain.

In this part of Nicaragua, the dislike of the Sandinistas, the rough terrain, the scarcity of roads, and the distances between settlements have combined to make it possible for the contras to maintain one of their units there on a permanent basis. Other combat units come into the region from time to time. The Jorge Salazar Command, which is estimated to have between six hundred and one thousand combatants, is the only contra unit that has operated continuously within Nicaragua for an extended period. If the contras are to succeed militarily, they must, as everyone agrees, continuously sustain many units in Nicaragua in addition to the Jorge Salazar Command.

Even in the south-central region, however, hostility to the Sandinistas is far from universal. The presence of some strong sympathizers of the Sandinistas—and, indeed, of some members of the Sandinista party—poses a severe threat to the contras. Like guerrilla forces elsewhere, they are outmanned and outgunned by the Sandinista armed forces. Accordingly, they must avoid combat with the army except on their own terms—that is, when they can ambush a military unit or launch a surprise attack. Sandinista sympathizers in south-central Nicaragua endanger the contras because they may alert government forces to their movements, subjecting them to the punishing prospect of combat on the government’s terms.

Apparently in an effort to avoid this prospect, the contra forces in south-central Nicaragua regularly seek out civilians believed to favor the government, go to their houses, and kill them and members of their families. This seems to be the explanation for the scores of attacks on civilians by the contras in this region which have been documented by Americas Watch and other human rights groups and by US journalists covering the war. The attacks eliminate some people who might inform the government, force others to flee, and terrorize others into silence.

A typical episode took place on October 24, 1985, at about midnight. The contras attacked two houses in Verdun, a hamlet near Nueva Guinea, and killed a fifty-year-old man, Demesio Arroliga Cana, his fifteen-year-old daughter Matilde, and their seventy-year-old relative and neighbor, Blas Arteaga. Arroliga and Arteaga were both members of the local Comité de Defensa Sandinista (CDS), and both did occasional guard duty. On the night of the attack, they were in civilian clothes and unarmed. The shots that killed Arroliga were fired at close range; it appears that something like a formal execution took place.

A more recent episode at another hamlet near Nueva Guinea, El Níspero, on November 9, 1986, was reported in the Miami Herald:

When contra rebels withdrew, triumphant, after briefly conquering this crossroads village, they left behind two dead soldiers and five other vanquished enemies: Two elderly sisters. A young mother. A pair of infants. One with his throat slashed.

With them, the rebels hauled away war booty that included eight rifles, a record player complete with some old 45 rpms, a radio and a purloined watch. As prisoners, they led off a young mother, babe in arms, and the infant’s grandmother….

Villagers said several dozen contras attacked El Níspero at 2 a.m. on November 9, after the last waltz at a drunken village dance. The reason is murky, although Sandinista police, operating on tips from village informants, have rounded up scores of accused contras in the area and rebels may have been settling scores.1

If the residents of this region were solidly behind the contras, and could be counted on not to inform on their whereabouts, there would be no need for such attacks against civilians. Indeed, the contras would have every reason to avoid such attacks because they tarnish their reputation internationally; because they would not want to attack their own supporters; and because they must know that killing children and the elderly may turn against them even the residents of this region who are hostile to the Sandinistas. It would be a great mistake, however, to attribute these attacks on civilians simply to the sadistic or brutal nature of the contras. Nor do they reflect practices that could have been fundamentally altered by the ascendancy of Arturo Cruz in the contra leadership. Rather, in my view, such attacks reflect their sense of what they must do to survive.

Probably the only part of Nicaragua in which the Sandinistas were even less popular than in the south-central ranching region was the area inhabited by the Miskito Indians near the Rio Coco river on the Atlantic Coast. The Sandinistas badly abused the Miskitos in 1981 and 1982, destroying their villages, their homes, and their fruit trees, and forcibly evacuating about 8,500 of them without advance notice, while another 12,000 or so fled into Honduras. In addition, Americas Watch has reported that close to one hundred Miskitos are known to have been killed, apart from combat, during this period by Sandinista troops.2

As a result of resentment arising from such abuses the Indian forces opposing the government could operate for some years without much risk that their movements would be betrayed to government forces. This situation changed during 1986, however. The Sandinistas considerably moderated their policies in their dealings with the Miskitos; but even more important, an Indian contra force, Kisán, had managed to antagonize much of the Miskito population in the region. The Miskitos particularly resented an episode last Easter when between eight and ten thousand of them were led by Kisán forces across the Rio Coco border into Honduras. Kisán had induced them to go by spreading tales of new Sandinista atrocities against the Miskitos that turned out to be largely unfounded.

In addition Kisán forced some of the Miskitos to abandon communities along the river that they had only recently resettled after being ejected from the area by the Sandinistas in 1982. One purpose of the 1986 Kisán-led evacuation was parently to portray the Sandinistas as responsible for creating a large new exodus of Indian refugees just at the time Congress was to vote on aid to the contras. After Kisán had taken the Miskitos across the Rio Coco, it treated them badly in Honduras and harassed those who attempted to go back across the river again to Nicaragua. During the rest of 1986, however, about half of those who took part in the Easter exodus managed to return to Nicaragua, and they brought back with them many tales about the perfidy and brutality of Kisán. As a consequence, any attempt by the contras today to establish themselves on the Atlantic Coast near Honduras would encounter the same problems the contras face everywhere else in Nicaragua. Some local residents would probably inform the government of their movements, posing the threat that the contras would have to engage in combat on the government’s terms.

Elsewhere in Nicaragua, the contras face an even greater likelihood than in the south-central ranching region and on the Atlantic Coast that the civilian population would tip off the army about their activities. Accordingly, if they try to establish themselves anywhere else and want to avoid pitched battles with the army that they could not win, they would have to engage in even more systematic attacks on suspected civilian informers. It is for this reason that the demand that the contras show some evidence of military success conflicts directly with the demand that they stop killing civilians.

Frustrated by press reports about contra abuses of human rights, the State Department has tried to shift the blame to the Sandinistas by arguing that they are deliberately placing their civilian supporters in areas where the contras are fighting and that, thereby, the victims of attacks have become legitimate military targets. The State Department adopted this line in response to a report in The Washington Post on July 1, 1986, about a contra attack on a cattle cooperative at Camoapa, near Boaco.

The Post had reported that five members of one family were killed in this attack, including a twelve-year-old girl and a five-year-old girl. The contras also burned several houses, injured several other civilians, and kidnapped five persons, aged thirteen to fifty.

The day the story appeared in the Post, Charles Redman, the State Department press spokesman, responded to an inquiry about it with the following comment:

It is not the policy of the resistance to attack civilian targets. However, the allegation that the resistance attacks civilians is a consistent propaganda theme of the Sandinista government. These cooperatives, this was what was attacked in Nicaragua, often have a dual military-economic purpose and are part of the Sandinistas’ strategy of population control designed to keep the resistance away from its supporters. To that end, most of these cooperatives are located in conflictive or potentially conflictive areas. The inhabitants of the cooperatives are armed and receive regular military training. Unfortunately, due to the mingling of civilian and military functions, there are sometimes civilian casualties.

The State Department did not contend that the cooperative was fortified. Mr. Redman’s comment about military training apparently referred to the fact that a sixty-five-year-old man who was killed had a gun and defended the cooperative. The only evident military purpose the members of the cooperative might have served was to inform government forces about contra movements. Unquestionably, this would have had the effect of keeping the contras away from their supporters in that area. Accordingly, the State Department viewed the location of the cooperative as part of the military strategy of the Sandinistas and attempted to portray the attack as legitimate. In effect, the State Department was contending that the Sandinistas have a duty to make it easy for the contras—and to spare them the nasty duty of killing civilian families—by clearing all civilian supporters of the government out of areas in which the contras enjoy some popular support.

On January 28, General Paul G. Gorman, until recently the chief of the US Southern Command in Panama, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the military difficulties facing the contras. General Gorman told the Committee that:

A sound, unconventional warfare campaign does not involve people with guns up front. It involves a lot of patient preparation of the battlefield. Unless and until you have got the ability to move at will in the society that you want to attack, you are not going to be an effective insurgent…. They [the contras] are not that kind of force….

[The contras are] a cross-border raiding force. We are talking about people who have received a modest amount of weapons training and a lot of fancy web gear, some good weapons. But I do not think they have got the apparatus in the country that would enable them to be militarily efficacious.

General Gorman was plain-spoken in telling the senators that the contras had not undertaken the time-consuming and patient political effort that would have been required to win solid civilian backing, even in regions of Nicaragua where there is substantial antagonism to the Sandinistas. Accordingly, in Gorman’s words, they lack “the ability to move at will in the society.” That ability is a prerequisite to guerrilla success. To compensate for its absence, the contras have resorted to assassinating suspected civilian informers or potential informers, gaining a reputation that makes it all the more unlikely that they could ever acquire the ability to “move at will in the society.”

In his Senate testimony, General Gorman placed the blame for the contras‘ failure on the CIA. The CIA did not train them properly, he told the senators. Perhaps that is right, but if so, the question that should be asked is why? Did the CIA simply repeat the mistake it had made at the Bay of Pigs when it apparently persuaded itself that the Cuban people were so unhappy that they would rise spontaneously to overthrow Fidel Castro’s tyranny as soon as an attack was launched? That seems hard to believe. Since 1961, the agency has learned much about guerrilla warfare from the conflicts in Vietnam, Angola, El Salvador, Afghanistan, and many other places. Surely, the men who run the CIA know by now that it is not so easy to promote a popular insurrection, and that a guerrilla war is a long, drawn-out process.

There are two other possible explanations, in my view, for the failure of the contras and their sponsors in the CIA to undertake what General Gorman describes as “preparation of the battlefield.” Even before the first Boland Amendment in December 1982 required that overthrowing the Sandinistas should not be the purpose of the war, the CIA may not have believed a contra victory was possible. When the war was being launched in 1981 and 1982, the agency may only have wanted to bleed Nicaragua as an object lesson to the Sandinistas themselves, and to anyone else with thoughts about establishing a leftist government in the Western Hemisphere. Getting the contra war started may have mattered more to the CIA than making certain it would ultimately succeed.

A second possibility—not necessarily at odds with the first—is that both the contra leaders and their CIA sponsors never believed that the contras themselves would ultimately march into Managua. They may have assumed that the war would ultimately be won for them by US troops. If that was what they had in mind, they had no need to go through the long, difficult work of preparing the battlefield for unconventional warfare by persuading the population that the guerrillas deserved support. US troops would prevail by superior conventional force. With that prospect in mind, the purpose of the contras would have been to create an international political climate that would justify a US invasion. This could be advanced by inducing the Sandinistas to behave repressively toward their domestic political opponents, or toward potentially separatist minorities such as the Miskitos; or by baiting them to make strikes across the border at contra sanctuaries in neighboring countries; or simply by creating sufficient chaos in the region to warrant the intervention of a peacekeeping force.

If in fact the contra leadership and their CIA sponsors had it in mind that preparing the battlefield for unconventional warfare was unnecessary because the war would eventually become a conventional one, that prospect has been greatly diminished by the Iran-contra-funding scandal. At this stage, the Reagan administration lacks the domestic political strength to undertake an invasion with US troops. That leaves the contras fighting on a battlefield that was never suitable for the kind of warfare in which they are engaged. In view of their record of brutality under nondemocratic leadership during the past few years, it is too late now for them to make their cause a plausible one to most of the population. Even if Mr. Cruz had not resigned, a change in political leadership would not have made much difference. The only prospect I can see is that the contras will continue to act as they have in the past and that the more they strive for military success, the more attacks they will feel compelled to launch against civilians—a formula for both military failure and atrocious violations of human rights.

  1. 1

    Sam Dillon, “Both Sides Stoop to Savagery in Nicaragua,” Miami Herald (November 23, 1986). After the Sandinistas retook El Níspero, they killed a badly wounded contra and dragged his body through the town.

  2. 2

    Though some of those responsible for these killings were punished, in most cases the sentences imposed were not proportionate to the crimes committed and there has never been a public accounting by the government for the abuses committed by its forces.

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