The elections of November 1984 were a turning point both for the Sandinista regime and for its opponents. As I described in a previous article,1 the election of President Daniel Ortega took place without the participation of the principal opposition coalition—the Coordinadora group—led by Arturo Cruz, who claimed that the government would not allow his group the minimum conditions necessary for a fair campaign. Notwithstanding the judgment of some observers that the vote was “a step toward democracy,” the Sandinistas soon tightened their control over civilian life—abetted, as in the past, by the tactics of the Reagan administration.

On the evening of November 6, while the votes were being counted both in Managua and the US, the administration circulated intelligence reports suggesting that a Soviet freighter might be delivering M16-21 fighters to Nicaragua. The administration used the scare to persuade members of Congress to support direct military action if M16s appeared in Nicaragua. In fact none were delivered. The US sent a reconnaissance plane whose sonic booms were heard twice in Managua. The Sandinistas, predicting an imminent invasion, as they had eight times before, took the occasion to militarize the country further and impose harsher controls. (The shipment in question was of one of two delivering a total of six Soviet MI-24 combat helicopters. What was new about it was that it was the first to come in a Soviet freighter and directly from a Soviet port.)

The invasion scare was over in a few days. But throughout November and December, activists from the opposition parties and groups were harrassed and jailed often for brief periods—including followers of the Social Christian party, the Independent Liberal party led by Virgilio Godoy, and several union leaders. Press censorship became more severe and dozens of opposition leaders were denied exit visas. Small merchants found themselves in increasing difficulty with the government, and demonstrations against the draft were suppressed. The attacks from rebel forces based in Honduras and Nicaragua became much more intense, and more of the countryside became embroiled in a civil war backed by the superpowers. A report from Managua in the London Sunday Times of January 13, 1985 noted that rebel

attacks are getting to the point where the government, instead of publicizing the killings [by the rebels], as it used to, appears to have decided that fear of demoralization overcomes the value of publicity.

After the elections, the number of people illegally leaving the country sharply increased. In early 1985, the Costa Rican minister of public security announced that in three days, three thousand Nicaraguan youths had entered his country. “Before the refugees were campesinos—but now we’re getting young people from the city.”

Many of them were escaping the draft, which was imposed on young men over fifteen in 1983 and became an acute issue throughout the country in 1984. According to that year’s annual report of the OAS’s Inter-American Human Rights Commission: “On many occasions young people who are ineligible under the very terms of the law that created the service are drafted into it.” The Nicaraguan Permanent Commission on Human Rights, an independent organization which has been strongly critical of the Sandinistas, reported that in November 1984, just after the elections, an estimated three thousand young people in Chinandega were taken from their homes in handcuffs during a forced recruitment drive. After the draft was imposed, school attendance fell as much as 75 percent in some regions, and young Nicaraguans have told journalists that they are afraid to ride public vehicles or go to the movies because of the fear of draft roundups. In March 1985 an ABC television report estimated from extensive interviews that 35 percent of the eligible Nicaraguans were evading the draft and 20 percent of those conscripted later deserted.

During the last months of 1984 there were at least six large street demonstrations against the draft. According to The Washington Post (January 18, 1985), on December 28 residents of Nagarote, a cotton town twenty-five miles northwest of Managua, set up barricades and fought Sandinista soldiers who were rounding up local young men for army service. The soldiers were directed by local CDS (Sandinista Defense Committees, neighborhood block committees) officials and accompanied by turbas (mobs) wielding clubs and sticks. The previous week two hundred women, the mothers of soldiers, had forced their way into an army training camp in San Rafael del Sur to protest the drafting of their sons and demand their release. In May a group of Creoles and Indians on the Atlantic Coast who had been recruited into the Sandinista army revolted during a battle with Miskito Indian guerrillas and liberated Miskitos from an army prison. Twenty-two rebels and Sandinista troops were reported to have died in the mutiny.

By 1985 the government was devoting nearly half of its resources to the war. Its foreign debt was more than $4 billion; and Nicaragua became the first developing country to fall more than six months behind in the payments of its debt to the World Bank. As in El Salvador, the war has placed a huge burden on Nicaragua’s economy and has impaired the government’s ability to improve the standard of living of peasants and workers. The embargo on trade announced by the US last spring imposed new hardships on the Nicaraguans and strengthened the hardliners among the Sandinistas. So have the efforts by the US to block Nicaraguan loans from the Inter-American Development Bank—a policy that many Latin American governments have objected to.


But the economic situation had been worsening since the end of 1981, before the war with the rebels became a major factor, and after the US and other Western governments contributed $1.6 billion in aid to the Nicaraguan government. The middle class, alarmed by politically motivated expropriations, became relucant to invest. State companies, in which there were widespread mismanagement and corruption, failed to take up the slack. By the end of 1981 real wages were sharply falling and unemployment was rising. Peasants, unable to sell on the private market and unwilling to sell at state-imposed, artificially low prices, cut back on production. By 1983, this caused nationwide food shortages, a vast black market, and high inflation. Many Nicaraguans quit their farming and factory jobs to engage in speculation, buying and selling black market goods. In 1984, a dozen new shantytowns sprang up around Managua, inhabited by campesinos and urban poor unable to pay rent.

Describing the economic situation as “hellish,” Daniel Ortega announced in February 1985 an austerity plan that sharply reversed Sandinista economic policies and reduced the extent of government intervention in the economy. The new economic policy devalued the currency, removed price subsidies, cut state spending and state employment, restricted the property of state farms, increased taxes, and intensified the campaign against “speculators.”2

As their standard of living fell to approximately the same low levels that had prevailed during the early 1960s, Nicaraguans heard from the government itself of widespread graft by Sandinista officials. During the winter of 1984 and 1985, many of the public clinics were without medicine and equipment, but soap, refrigerators, air conditioners, and other electrical equipment, as well as large quantities of medicines—all stamped “Ministry of Public Health”—turned up on the black market. The authorities, after first censoring an exposé of graft in La Prensa, accused a ring of corrupt officials headed by the minister of health, who was later fired. There have also been reports of illegal sales of state agricultural machinery, public land, and gas rationing coupons, as well as arbitrary police fines and embezzlement by heads of state companies.

On April 3, 1985, the head of the Sandinista national police said, “The problem of corruption and economic crime is so great that it could damage Nicaragua as much as counterrevolutionary activity.” He was no doubt correct in saying that “counterrevolutionary…elements can usually take advantage of the discontent that generalized corruption produces among the masses.”

Most of the protest against corruption, however, was not planned by the rebels, who have been notably unsuccessful in organizing opposition in the cities. Many of the local demonstrations that have taken place seem to have been spontaneous, like the antidraft protests and the “candy riot” in Managua last June, when a group of women and children invaded a state warehouse after word spread that thousands of boxes of East German and Bulgarian candy were melting in the heat.3

Through the spring and summer of 1985 popular protests increased. On May Day, fifteen hundred workers tried to march from a church in a working-class neighborhood of Managua, where they heard a sermon from Archbishop Obando y Bravo, to a site where a union leader had been killed in the struggle against Somoza. Sandinista police and turbas broke up the march. Several weeks earlier, union complaints had forced the government to raise wages. But with inflation running at 200 percent a year, prices rose several times faster. In September a leftist construction-union leader began a hunger strike demanding that the Christmas bonuses, which the Sandinistas had cancelled, be restored. He was immediately arrested but other labor unions took up his demands. Workers in government unions have taken part in unauthorized strikes, notwithstanding the assurances in August of Comandante Bayardo Arce, one of the most powerful of the Sandinista leaders, that

Nicaraguan workers now have class consciousness, because they do not expect salary increases, a reduction of the work week, or an increase in vacations. On the contrary, the workers have renounced all that. Payment for overtime has been replaced by the revolutionary concept of voluntary work and other necessary sacrifices for the defense of the revolution.

Fewer and fewer workers show the kind of enthusiasm Arce describes. A significant number of young Nicaraguans, however, are willing to make sacrifices for the revolution, especially those who have voluntarily joined the armed forces. They point to the benefits of the revolution for health, education, and the distribution of land. As Arturo Cruz told the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in an interview published in The New York Times of April 28, 1985,


the literacy campaign, rural development, the improved status of women—they are all positive. But [the Sandinistas’] most important achievement is that they have broken down the tremendous class barriers that once divided society. The Sandinistas’ mistake is thinking that none of these accomplishments is compatible with freedom.4

The well-to-do leaders of the right wing of the Nicaraguan political opposition have become paralyzed since the elections of 1984. They fear Sandinista reprisals and are suspicious of all the other opposition groups. They dream of a US invasion. The more moderate and left-wing parties representing professionals and workers have been far more active. In late September 1985 the Social Christian party called a meeting that brought out more people than could fit into the theater in Managua where the meeting took place. Virgilio Godoy, leader of the Independent Liberal party (PLI), told me in November that during 1985 his party was able to “organize nationally” for the first time, despite the arrest of more than fifty activists and the drafting of many more into the army. A young PLI leader told me, “We have a conviction [mistica] that we are struggling not so much for political power but for the survival of our culture, our national identity.” I heard similar views from Socialist party activists. Two other Marxist-Leninist parties have also joined in protests organized by trade unions and opposition political parties.


In previous crises Nicaraguans have turned to the Church as the symbol of national identity. A small number of priests have joined with the regime, which has supported a “people’s church.” But as Vargas Llosa wrote in his New York Times article, “the efforts of the leaders of the ‘people’s church’ to combine politics and religion have only found a response in the intellectually militant members of the middle class, most of whom are already converts.” The “people’s church,” he wrote, “is largely composed of members of the religious elite—priests and laymen whose intellectual dispositions and sociopolitical work lie beyond the scope of most of the Catholic poor.”

The traditional Church has been increasingly estranged from the regime since the early 1980s, and there seems no doubt that large numbers of Catholics see the Church as an ally against an oppressive system. On June 14, 200,000 Nicaraguans went to the airport to greet Miguel Obando y Bravo when he returned from Rome where he was elevated from archbishop to cardinal, some of them waiting since 9:00 AM for the cardinal’s plane to arrive at 5:00 PM. It took the cardinal’s car nine hours to drive through the dense crowd to his house, six miles from the airport. Many in the crowd shouted, “Christianity yes, Communism no” and “the [Sandinista] Front must go,” jeered at Sandinista police, and attacked foreign journalists as “internacionalistas” or government collaborators. When the government tried to disperse the crowds by switching off street lights, people burned tires by the roadside and lit torches.

Like many of the other Nicaraguans who are now the active leaders of the opposition inside the country, Obando y Bravo is not a man of the right. He was twice called upon by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to arrange the release of Sandinista political prisoners from Somoza’s jails and issued statements justifying armed rebellion against Somoza. He now says that Nicaraguans “want neither communism nor capitalism,” a view that implicitly criticizes some of the important supporters of the rebel forces as well as the Sandinistas. The cardinal has called for a dialogue between the two sides. He began holding masses throughout the country this summer, preaching a message of “unity and national reconciliation,” which attracted large crowds. The Sandinistas sent armed security agents to the Catholic radio station to stop them from broadcasting tapes of his talks. Eleven seminarians who had been assured that they were exempt from military service were drafted into the army in late September 1985, and immigration authorities threatened to expel fifteen foreign priests if they made statements critical of FSLN policies.

On October 12 security officials confiscated both the first issue of a new Church newspaper and the printing press. Three days later Lenin Cerna, head of Sandinista state security, led a raid on the Church’s welfare office, a center for Catholic activists, and prevented priests from entering it. Then came Daniel Ortega’s decree of October 15, suspending the rights of speech, assembly, personal security, and freedom of movement, and labor’s right to organize strikes. Americas Watch has reported that several hundred people have been arrested, questioned, and then released since the emergency decree. They have included the Catholic and Evangelical clergy, trade-union leaders, and a well-known journalist. According to the Nicaraguan Permanent Commission on Human Rights, two Social Christian party activists were brutally murdered in November, one after being tortured. Ortega blamed “US imperialism” and rebel “sabotage and political destabilization” for the decree; but the main targets of the actions taken under it have not been saboteurs or people giving assistance to the rebels but the civilian political opposition and, primarily, the Church.

During the weeks that followed the October 15 decree, Sandinista authorities intensified their campaign against the Catholic Church and other religious organizations. State security officials detained and questioned several Catholic priests and Evangelical ministers. They were stripped and subjected to long interrogations while naked. At the end of December the Catholic radio station was closed down. La Prensa’s editor told me that censorship was more severe than ever—articles that were censored included announcements of confirmations and baptisms and news of hurricanes, as well as reports of the decisions of the National Assembly. The ban on outdoor meetings has not prevented many thousands from attending Cardinal Obando y Bravo’s masses in fields and public squares. He told me: “Twenty thousand people will not fit into a church.”

I was able to see what the cardinal meant on November 7 when he held a mass in Ocotal, a small town several miles from the Honduran border, in an area contested by the rebels. Three thousand people came on foot from small hamlets in the region. Some had been walking for days. The authorities did not set up roadblocks to keep people from entering Ocotal, as they had done previously for two larger masses that had been held elsewhere since the October 15 decree. They refused to allow business in Ocotal to close that day, however, and prohibited public employees from attending the service. When the cardinal arrived, the crowd surged forward, carrying me into the church with it. Inside people were so packed together it was difficult to breathe and impossible to move. The cardinal’s theme was that the Nicaraguan people were a people estranged from itself, from truth, from God.

Obando y Bravo told me he sought to be “the voice of those who have no voice.” With the various members of the political opposition unable to act freely and the weak and divided leaders of the Coordinadora—the coalition of conservatives and liberals that mounted the principal challenge to the regime before the 1984 election—out of popular favor, Miguel Obando y Bravo has emerged as its undisputed leader. The Catholic church is the only national institution capable of resisting the government, and, as in Poland, a sort of “dual power” exists in Nicaragua. Political and military power is in the hands of the FSLN, but the cardinal is the leader who clearly seems to have the broadest social and moral appeal. The Church cannot organize an open political opposition, but the Sandinista leaders are unable to impose socialism on the Cuban model, not because many of them do not wish to but because they face a resistant population.


After the elections many more Nicaraguans turned to armed resistance. “In December and January…volunteers streamed into the rebel border camps,” Julia Preston of The Boston Globe reported on March 18, 1985. In January Arturo Cruz—who had been an official in the revolutionary government and then the leader of the Coordinadora before the elections—changed his position. In November he had said that the new president should be given a “period of grace” to see whether the regime would allow a “political opening.” In January he declared that unless the Sandinistas renounced Soviet and Cuban military assistance, he would support a resumption of US funding for the rebels. Cruz, like some other former anti-Somocistas who had tried to oppose the Sandinistas peacefully inside Nicaragua, now moved toward an alliance with the rebels—an alliance, as we shall see, that has left him far from his announced goal of leading a united democratic opposition movement.

In Washington, House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill has called the rebels “butchers and maimers”; the Reagan administration has hailed them as “lovers of freedom and democracy,” “our brothers,” “the moral equal of our founding fathers.” Most of the rebels, who reject the word “contra” as a pejorative Sandinista label, claim that they fight “to restore the original goals of the revolution,” including pluralism and democratic institutions.

How seriously can such claims be taken? The rebel leaders are drawn from former officers and troops of Somoza’s National Guard, from pro- and anti-Somoza businessmen and politicians, former Sandinista fighters, and Indian leaders. Repeated efforts to unite them have failed. Most of them have had support from the CIA, and the story of their shifting relations with secret US agencies is central to any understanding of them. They are organized in several armed groups, from the fanatically anti-communist leaders of the Honduran-based FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Force) to the divided social democrats of the “southern front” on the Costa Rican border who were originally drawn to Edén Pastora, the former Sandinista who left Nicaragua in 1981, protesting the “Cubanization of the Nicaraguan revolution.” Pastora and his allies sought negotiations with the Sandinistas on several occasions. The FDN, until 1984, attacked as capitulation all efforts to negotiate. Of the two groups of Indian combatants, Misura has been allied with the FDN and Misurasata was formerly allied with Pastora. 5

The fighting in eastern Nicaragua (which Nicaraguans call the Atlantic Coast) has usually appeared to outsiders as a baffling sideshow. It is Nicaragua’s oldest but least publicized insurgency, in which groups of Creoles and Indians, mainly Miskitos—who are largely Protestant and do not speak Spanish—have been resisting Sandinista control. Between 1980 and 1985 perhaps one quarter of all rebels came from the Atlantic Coast. Missionaries, refugees, and even some government officials say that this is where the government has been most unpopular and had least authority after the Sandinista takeover in 1979. Miskito fighters have been able to enter almost any village in the region, under the cover of night.

Outside governments—Spanish, British, American—have seen the Atlantic Coast as a strategically important part of Nicaragua, and so have the Sandinistas since coming to power. The region has gold, lumber, and fish. It also has a long border with Honduras, and its ports are vital for receiving Cuban supplies. Immediately after the takeover Sandinistas dispatched troops as well as scores of Cuban doctors, nurses, and teachers to help pacify the region. The highly independent indigenous population resented the arbitrary behavior of Sandinista soldiers, their political indoctrination, and the raising of Cuban flags. The Sandinistas often responded by denying much-needed supplies to the Miskitos, who, some of the comandantes said, were suffering from “massive ideological backwardness.” Miskitos resisted the government’s attempts to replace communal lands and tribal organization with state farms and block committees. Early in 1981 the government arrested approximately thirty Miskito leaders, setting off a wave of protest along the Atlantic Coast. By the fall of 1981 there was intense fighting between Indian fighters and government troops. “The Nicaraguan government,” Penny Lernoux observed in The Nation of September 14, 1985, “allowed its distrust of the Indians to degenerate into civil war, and with each spiral in the violence it became more difficult for the Sandinistas to understand that ethnicity cannot be squeezed into the mold of class struggle.” (See also her article in the National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 1985.)

The Sandinistas’ next move, in December 1981, was to forcibly relocate forty-two Miskito villages near the Honduran border into resettlement camps—about eighty-five hundred people in all. An exodus of ten thousand Miskitos into Honduras followed the episode, and in November 1982 another seven thousand Indians were transferred to state-owned coffee plantations.6

The two Indian guerrilla groups on the Atlantic Coast since 1981, Misura and Misurasata, cooperate in the field but their leaders have been bitterly antagonistic. Misura’s longstanding chief, Steadman Fagoth, linked himself almost from the outset with the right-wing leaders of the FDN. The principal Misurasata leader, Brooklyn Rivera, claims that Fagoth tried to assassinate him. Both men had been accused of using violence to eliminate rivals. Rivera made a tactical alliance with Edén Pastora, but he has been concerned almost exclusively with the persecution of the Indians. Late in 1984 he began to negotiate with the Sandinistas for Indian land rights and a cease-fire. In May 1985 these talks were cut off when the Sandinista minister of the interior Tomás Borge announced that a national autonomy commission was being created to deal with the Miskito problem and demanded that Rivera declare an unconditional cease-fire if the talks were to continue.

In August 1985, Fagoth, whose brutality and abuses toward civilians embarrassed some of his own supporters, was expelled from Misura. Later that month, Rivera claims, the Honduran authorities, with the complicity of the US, kept him from attending an “Indian unity” meeting on Honduran territory. At the meeting a statement was issued announcing that a new Miskito organization called Kisan had been formed. It was immediately denounced by some of the former leaders of Misura and the current leaders of Misurasata as the artificial creation of the FDN. Rivera protested that the FDN had “seized and intimidated Miskito community leaders, demanding that they either support the FDN or be killed.”

The Sandinistas have been unable to subdue the Atlantic Coast. “The people reject the troops,” Mateo Collins, the local director of the Protestant Committee for Aid and Development, told The New York Times in an interview published on February 8. “Many people believe nothing good can come from the Sandinistas.” Since last autumn there has been an unstable, unofficial truce in the region. The Sandinistas have allowed Miskitos to resettle in their burned-out villages. They have granted an amnesty to Miskito fighters, started informal talks with guerrillas in the field, and moved Sandinista troops out of Miskito villages to barracks in coastal cities. Some Sandinista supporters, who were distressed by the treatment of the Miskitos, are hopeful that these conciliatory actions mark a decisive change in the FSLN’s attitude. Since the beginning of 1985 several thousand Miskito refugees in Honduras have returned to the Atlantic Coast; and since early December flights have taken refugees from Mocaron in Honduras to Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua. Rivera, for his part, claims that the Sandinistas, unable to pacify the Atlantic region, have had to settle for an uneasy truce there in order to concentrate their efforts against the FDN in the north.

Fighting has continued on the Atlantic Coast. In late October, Miskito troops dynamited a key bridge north of Puerto Cabezas. On February 8, Stephen Kinzer reported in The New York Times that in late January the Sandinistas had carried out bombing attacks on at least three Miskito Indian villages in the area near Layasiksa. In one of the attacks rockets and five-hundred-pound bombs were dropped from two planes and a helicopter. “Villagers said they suspected the bombing might have been aimed at a group of rebels led by Brooklyn Rivera,” who had returned to Nicaragua to “discuss the military and political situation with other Miskitos.”7

Reynaldo Reyes, the Miskito leader of the largest group observing the cease-fire, said that “the bombing was a serious violation of our agreement” and that it endangered the truce. Bishop Hedley Wilson, the leader of the Moravian Church in Nicaragua, told Kinzer that he “hoped the Government would halt all bombing in and around the villages” because “these people aren’t armed and they aren’t actually involved in any conflict.” Rivera and his group escaped in a boat to an island off Nicaragua.


The FDN is the largest and most successful rebel group. Its military forces were not organized by “lovers of freedom and democracy” and they are not led by such people now. The top leadership has undergone several changes but it has always consisted of National Guard officers. Its precise origins are difficult to trace, but the FDN began by bringing together different groups of guardsmen who had scattered after the Sandinista takeover in 1979. Some were trying to carry on fighting on the Nicaragua-Honduras border; others took odd jobs or worked as hired gunmen in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador; still others were in Florida.

One group of perhaps twenty junior National Guard officers (formerly part of a US-trained elite battalion) met in the offices of a group of Cuban exiles where they took an oath of loyalty with blood rites, and proclaimed themselves bound by a right-wing mistica—devotion to the cause of anticommunism and to over-throwing the Sandinistas. They were determined to avenge Sandinista persecution of their former National Guard comrades.8 But they had no money. At first most of the senior National Guard officers, as well as politicians, businessmen, and landlords, refused to meet with them. One exception was Colonel Enrique Bermúdez, the defense attaché in Washington during Somoza’s last years. In early 1980, having received $300,000 from Somoza’s cousin, Luis Pallais Debayle, he began to organize this and the other groups of guardsmen into the September 15 Legion,9 named after the date of Central America’s liberation from Spain in 1821.

Under Bermúdez’s command the Legion’s headquarters were moved from training camps in Florida to Guatemala, at the time the center of a Central American terrorist network that harbored right-wing fugitives like Roberto d’Aubisson and provided training camps for Salvadoran death squads. Bermúdez negotiated an agreement with the Argentine military dictatorship. In exchange for money, arms, and training, the legion would pursue the “dirty war” against the Argentine Montoneros who had fled to Central America and to some of whom the Sandinistas had given sanctuary. A group of Bermúdez’s men went to Argentina and received training there, not only in the use of arms but in techniques of “interrogation.” The Argentine government later sent officers to Honduras to train Bermúdez’s guerrillas. The legion also received money from Salvadoran businessmen.

Its first intelligence chief, Ricardo (“Chino”) Lau, was accused in 1984 by a former director of Salvadoran intelligence of helping d’Aubisson to assassinate Archbishop Oscard Arnulfo Romero. Lau was still associated with Bermúdez up to late 1984. During the 1980 Republican campaign Bermúdez also met with and got encouragement from some future members of the Reagan administration who were then close to Senator Jesse Helms.

Bermúdez was also making contact with the first of what were to be successive groups of former opponents of Somoza who were disenchanted with the Sandinistas. José Francisco (“Chicano”) Cardenal had participated with Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the editor of La Prensa, in an unsuccessful guerrilla movement against Somoza in 1959. In 1978 he was a leader of the strikes that businessmen organized against Somoza. After the Sandinistas stacked the quasilegislative Council of State in May 1980, Cardenal, who was its vice-president, left Nicaragua and formed the Nicaraguan revolutionary democratic alliance (ADREN). ADREN entered into a short-lived, shaky alliance with Bermúdez’s September 15 Legion. This was the first of many unsuccessful attempts to merge anti-Somocistas with Bermúdez’s group. When the two organizations separated in October 1980, Cardenal joined two brothers who had fought against Somoza, Fernando (“El Negro”) and Edmundo Chamorro and a distant relative, the former Jesuit professor Edgar Chamorro.10 They formed an organization called the Nicaraguan Democratic Union (UDN).

In the summer of 1981 another attempt was made to unite the two anti-Sandinista groups—the UDN with about one hundred members, and the September 15 Legion with about seventy-five. “El Negro” Chamorro refused to have anything to do with the ex-guardsmen but Cardenal and Edgar Chamorro agreed to do so, and in October 1981 the FDN was founded by merging the September 15 Legion with a section of the UDN led by Cardenal.

Edgar Chamorro told me that he and Cardenal had hesitated to join forces with former guardsmen: “They were the ones who had persecuted our family.” Yet he decided to join for two reasons. The Sandinistas, he said, were “putting in place a Cuban-type system” and had become a “power elite unwilling to listen to anyone outside the party’s inner circle.” Furthermore:

The Americans told us we must unite to get their backing. It was a marriage of convenience. We needed to build an army, and we saw Bermúdez as a professional military man; the military types needed moderate, democratic credentials and contacts. We thought the Americans would help us subordinate them [the military] to us [the civilians].

He was not the first Nicaraguan democrat to harbor such illusions or to say he felt trapped between Sandinista intransigence and American blindness.

Cardenal says a State Department official, Secretary Alexander Haig’s special assistant, General Gordon Sumner, “insinuated” to him that unity with the former guardsmen would assure a flow of money to the rebels. Cardenal’s first meeting with the CIA was in July 1981. The insurgents, he was told, should cooperate with the Honduran and Argentine governments with whom, it was clear, the CIA was in close touch.

In August 1981 Reagan’s assistant secretary for inter-American affairs, Thomas Enders, traveled to Managua where he promised the Sandinistas to keep out of Nicaragua’s internal affairs if the Sandinistas ceased arming and otherwise assisting the Salvadoran rebels. Enders failed to get an agreement, and in November 1981 the White House authorized CIA funding for the Nicaraguan rebels.

Shortly before this, Bermúdez, on instructions from an Argentine colonel in charge of relations with the FDN, moved his headquarters to Honduras, where the FDN was assured it would get a friendly reception from General Gustavo Alvarez, the Commander in Chief of the Honduran armed forces and a protégé of the Argentine military. The CIA provided supplies and training in sabotage. In March of 1982, FDN saboteurs trained by the CIA blew up two bridges in northern Nicaragua; the Sandinistas, in response, declared a state of emergency.

Enders, according to State Department sources, saw support of the FDN as a “second track,” a way to pressure the Sandinistas to consent to US demands (especially that they end their involvement in El Salvador), but also as a means of appeasing the far-right-wing forces inside and outside the Reagan administration, who were determined to overthrow the Sandinista regime. In August 1983, Julio Lopez, the FSLN’s top foreign-policy official, told me in Managua, “We can accept the Enders deal” on El Salvador. But by then what was called the “second track” was already central to the Reagan administration’s policy. Nicaragua was deeply divided, and the rebels had become a major military force based in the Honduran camps, where CIA officials were replacing the Argentine officers in charge of training.


A second wave of former opponents of Somoza left Nicaragua in 1981, this time led by dissident Sandinistas, including “Comandante Cero,” Edén Pastora, who was famous for having led the raid on the National Palace in 1978, and, later, for his command of the southern front in the war against Somoza. Pastora’s departure from Nicaragua, along with that of his chief associates, including Carlos Coronel and Leonel Poveda, marked the first major break in Sandinista unity. Pastora traveled to Cuba, Panama, and Guatemala—where, he told me, the Sandinistas blocked his participation in the Guatemalan revolutionary movement even though he had been given $5 million by the Libyan government for the revolutionaries. He came to the surface in early 1982 in Mexico. There he met Duane (“Dewey”) Claridge (whom Pastora knew as Mr. Maroni), the CIA agent charged with organizing the contras.

The CIA began to finance Pastora’s organization in 1982, and in 1983, from what I have been told by both US government and rebel sources, the CIA gave more money to Pastora than it did to the FDN. Dewey Claridge considered the charismatic ex-Sandinista more likely than Bermúdez to win Nicaraguan and international support, even if Pastora resisted advice to make his organization more efficient and resented any suggestion that he was serving US interests.

At this point, the Reagan administration officials did not agree about their aims in backing Nicaragua rebel forces: Was it to bring down the Sandinista regime or to force it into making concessions? But their tactics were clear. There were now two basic ideological camps in the resistance—the first was on the northern border, in Honduras, composed of national guardsmen and backed by traditional right-wing party leaders and former associates of Somoza, many of them in Miami; the second, based in Costa Rica on the southern border, consisted of former Sandinistas and social and Christian democrats. The CIA backed both, intending to combine them into one. But it wanted to be sure that whichever side it backed would accept American political and military instructions.

During the summer of 1982 Pastora united his group with Alfonso Robelo’s Nicaraguan Democratic Movement (MDN)—a social democratic organization with some five hundred members, which had been closely allied with the moderate Tercerista wing of the Sandinista movement during the insurrection—and with Brooklyn Rivera’s Misurasata. They formed ARDE (Revolutionary Democratic Alliance). While Dewey Claridge was urging ARDE to merge with the FDN, throughout 1982 and early 1983 Pastora and Robelo were requesting negotiations with the Sandinistas on their proposals for restoring civil liberties, dispensing with Cuban advisers, and adopting a nonaligned foreign policy. They sought, unsuccessfully, the good offices of European social democrats and Congressional liberals both to intercede with the Sandinistas and to give them backing in Washington. (Prime Minister Soares of Portugal, they said, gave them some encouragement.) Carlos Coronel, then Pastora’s chief political adviser, traveled to Havana to discuss a Nicaraguan settlement with Cuban officials. Nothing came of these talks either. In April 1983 Pastora’s guerrilla forces, by now more than a thousand men, including several hundred former Sandinista soldiers, entered Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border; he was again commanding a “southern front,” as he had in the war against Somoza.

Meanwhile, within the FDN’s political directorate, relations with Cardenal grew tense. Cardenal told me that Bermúdez and his right-hand man, a former land-owner named Aristides Sanchez, wanted the FDN to be “a political party to seize power just like the Sandinistas, not a liberation movement to organize elections.” Cardenal told Sanchez: “You’re serving the Argentines just as your father served Somoza.” According to Cardenal, Bermúdez and his National Guard associates “promoted an invasion by a conventional army; we wanted a guerrilla war with internal support.”

Cardenal, by now an uneasy member of the FDN’s political directorate, told me that in May 1982 he sought out Pastora in Costa Rica. Pastora told Cardenal that he could not join with the FDN so long as it included Lau and Bermúdez. In August 1982 Edmundo Chamorro of the UDN told me that he and his brother favored uniting UDN, ARDE, and the FDN. But Cardenal’s talks with Pastora infuriated the FDN leadership. Cardenal claims that Bermúdez tried to assassinate him.

During 1982 and 1983 the Sandinistas’ conflicts with the Church, the trade unions, peasants, and Indians, together with the unpopular draft, increased the number of rebel recruits beyond the expectations of their leaders and CIA sponsors. According to congressional intelligence committees and journalists covering the war, the FDN grew from six hundred in 1982 to between four and five thousand in March 1983 to twelve thousand by early 1985 (not including several thousand unequipped combatants). Pastora’s ARDE had as many as six thousand recruits by early 1984, most of them unarmed. Both in northern and southern Nicaragua (not to mention the Atlantic Coast) the local population often provided the rebel group with food, shelter, and information. The first American reporters who traveled with the FDN in the spring of 1983 found, as James Le-Moyne reported in Newsweek, that northern peasants “seemed to welcome” the insurgents.11

To the surprise of many in the CIA, Bermúdez’s FDN, not Pastora’s ARDE, benefited most from the Sandinistas’ problems. The FDN, with its well-organized camps in Honduras, was able to absorb new recruits more effectively. To quiet the concerns of congressional supervisory committees, the CIA decided to improve the group’s political image and to try to remove the stench of its Argentine and Guatemalan connections by bringing in recognized anti-Somocista leaders. A CIA agent using the alias Tony Feldman went to Miami to interview candidates. A new set of leaders was produced at a December 1982 news conference, including Edgar Chamorro and a former Sandinista named Indalecio Rodriguez, along with Bermúdez. As Chamorro recalled: “It was done in a big hurry…. The CIA was anxious to please Congress.” “Chicano” Cardenal claims that the powerful exiles of the Nicaraguan oligarchy, including Edgar Chamorro, saw to it that he was excluded. He later told me he regarded the National Guard officers as “once trusted employees of Somoza now working for new bosses.” Cardenal now runs an insurance agency in Miami.


In January 1983 Adolfo Calero joined the FDN directorate. Calero had been a leader of the Conservative party and was active in the strikes that helped bring down Somoza, but he also had long-standing ties with the CIA. According to Edgar Chamorro, the CIA summarily installed him as president of the National Directorate and Commander in Chief of the FDN. During 1983 and 1984, Calero removed several former National Guard officers accused of corruption and abuse of authority. The CIA also formulated a “code of conduct” for the FDN and wrote a now notorious field manual which the administration claimed was designed to curtail FDN terrorism. But it included instructions on how to “neutralize,” i.e., assassinate, local Sandinista officials. Americas Watch and American journalists have published reports of operations against Sandinista officials that were carried out in ways that could have been suggested by the manual.12

Though ARDE found support in isolated southeastern Nicaragua and occasionally carried out successful guerrilla attacks, Pastora proved to be a disappointment to his followers. His former associates say that his sense of having been deceived by the Sandinistas made him regard subordinates as potential rivals for power. When Comandante Luis Rivas became known for a successful attack on a Sandinista patrol, Pastora dismissed him. In 1983 and 1984, Pastora broke with virtually all of his potential comrades, including Alfonso Robelo, Brooklyn Rivera, and Carlos Coronel, and many field commanders as well. In August 1984 Robelo told me, “I’ll always be Edén’s friend, but it’s impossible to be his ally.” After ARDE broke up, a collection of feuding factions remained on the southern front.

Pastora’s associates say that between January 1983 and the spring of 1984, he received as much as $650,000 a month from the CIA, together with nine air drops of equipment and arms. Yet Pastora failed to pose a serious military challenge to the Sandinistas and wasted the aid he got. Arms supplied by the CIA turned up on the Costa Rican black market. On one occasion, an ARDE task force sabotaged the wrong cables and blacked out southern Honduras instead of Managua.

Many people have supposed that the CIA connection damaged Pastora, but the reverse may also be true. The decision to support him was a departure from the conventional CIA practice of backing reliable pro-Americans like Calero. It can be compared with the Soviets’ decision in the mid-1970s to back Fidelista political-military fronts like the Sandinistas instead of traditional Communist parties. 13 Pastora’s incompetence embarrassed his CIA sponsors. When his organization began to fall apart, the CIA lost ground in the bureaucratic contest it was carrying on with the National Security Council for control over operations against the Sandinistas. Dewey Claridge and other CIA officials who had supported Pastora were transferred.

After the CIA cut off his funds in 1984 and an attempt was made to kill him, Pastora told me that the FDN, the CIA, and the FSLN were all plotting together to destroy his reputation. In early 1985, he turned for financial help to Cuban exiles in Miami. In June 1985 the FSLN carried out a successful offensive against his troops near the Costa Rican border. His past allies fault him not for accepting CIA funds—which they regard as unavoidable in a war against what they regard as a repressive regime armed by the rival superpower—but for weakening the forces that might have worked out a “democratic option” on the southern front and thus strengthening the FDN.

Arturo Cruz and Alfonso Robelo say that Pastora’s failure left them no choice but to press for reform inside the FDN even as they tried slowly to reassemble the southern front. In June 1984, Robelo broke with Pastora and became yet another of the former Somoza opponents (like “Chicano” Cardenal and Edgar Chamorro) who sought to make the FDN a democratic organization—and who were used to give it legitimacy. During that month Chamorro quit the FDN, denouncing it for concealing human rights abuses, for its abject dependence on the CIA, and for its authoritarian mentality.14

In February 1985, after he was blocked from participating in the elections of 1984, Arturo Cruz agreed to ally himself with the FDN—on the understanding, he said, that “its internal reform process would continue and gather steam.” In June, he, Calero, and Robelo announced the formation of the Nicaraguan Opposition Union (UNO), which Robelo called “an umbrella for all democratic forces.” Cruz told me his experience with the Sandinistas convinced him that they would never agree to a political settlement unless there was a “broad democratic opposition alliance” that was backed by a military force but not subordinate to it. In The New York Times of November 4, James LeMoyne gave a revealing account of the difficulties he and Robelo have faced in achieving this goal:

Disagreements between the three UNO directors have been made more acute because Mr. Calero is also the head of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest and most effective guerrilla army. The position has allowed Mr. Calero to forge close ties with the White House and the CIA. As a consequence, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Robelo feel literally outgunned by Mr. Calero and at times have thought that when they argue with Mr. Calero they are also arguing with the CIA, according to three different rebel officials. Mr. Cruz and Mr. Robelo have no regular contact with top military commanders in Mr. Calero’s rebel army, the officials said

Other former associates of Pastora such as Carlos Coronel and Alfredo César still refuse to join with the FDN without guarantees that the FDN will be reformed. In August 1985, César, the former Sandinista secretary of the ruling junta and the former president of the Nicaraguan Central Bank, established BOS (Southern Opposition Bloc), a group that has had the backing of Pastora and some of the leaders of his guerrilla army, but very little money.

The experience of Robelo, “Chicano” Cardenal, and Alfredo César underlines the dilemma confronting Nicaraguan democrats who supported the revolution and believe it has been betrayed. Convinced as they are that military force is needed to persuade the Sandinistas to modify an increasingly repressive regime and allow the democratic opposition to take part in a political settlement, how can they mount such force without underwriting a group whose leaders are also hostile to democracy? Pastora’s and César’s alternative—a unification of the democratically minded rebels on the southern front that would advocate a separate “third way”—has so far failed to come about. In part this is because of Pastora’s poor leadership and their own differences; but Pastora, Robelo, and César also blame it on the refusal of those they regard as their “natural allies”—American liberals and European and Latin American democrats—to back them. When they turn to such allies as Calero and Bermúdez, they have limited influence and are also denounced. Independent of the will of many of the combatants, the Nicaraguan conflict has been turned inexorably into a superpower conflict. Robelo and Cruz maintain an uneasy alliance with the FDN in the hope of reforming and broadening it to include the rest of the rebels on the southern border. But their attempt to reform the FDN will be an uphill struggle, to say the least.


The cutoff in American aid in 1984 following the mining of a Nicaraguan harbor by the CIA created serious supply and intelligence problems for the FDN. It may also have increased the influence of the extreme right-wing groups in the US and abroad that back it. The FDN received military supplies from Taiwan, Guatemala, and rightist elements in the Salvadoran Air Force. From supposedly private groups in the US, Western Europe, South America, Taiwan, Israel, and South Korea, as well as Cuban exiles, has come an estimated $26 million in funds. The boards, benefactors, and members of these groups overlap and include such right-wing figures as Daniel O. Graham of High Frontier—the “Star Wars” lobby—Anna Chennault, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Pat Boone, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the Christian Broadcasting Network, Joseph Coors, and Wayne Newton. The network is coordinated by a small group led by retired General John Singlaub, who was relieved of his command in South Korea by President Carter for publicly criticizing the president. In the spring of this year, Singlaub reviewed the FDN troops in a rebel base on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border.

The US government secretly encouraged this “private-sector initiative” after Congress cut off CIA funds in 1984. On October 8, 1985, The Washington Post reported that White House officials chose Singlaub to coordinate fund raising for the FDN, and urged countries receiving US aid, such as Taiwan and South Korea, to raise money for the FDN through similar private networks. A National Security Council official took a leading part in raising money for the FDN. Though Cruz and Robelo have allies in the State Department and the NSC, they are up against a covert alliance of former National Guard officers, FDN and American extremists, foreign governments, and powerful elements in the Reagan administration. Strong ties of loyalty, or fealty, have developed between CIA officials acting as imperial patrons and their colonial adjutants in the FDN.

Weeks after Cruz and Robelo founded the UNO last June, Calero was refusing to carry out joint decisions and stacking the UNO with former Somoza officials.15 He was also planting criticisms of Cruz in the Costa Rican and Miami press, and spreading rumors among FDN troops that Cruz “only wants to gain control of the FDN so he can negotiate them away to the Sandinistas.” UNO and Congressional sources say that Calero obstructed the efforts of Cruz and Robelo to clean up FDN human-rights practices and tried to stop the UNO from getting control of US and private funds. Calero also opposed expanding the UNO to include Pastora and BOS last autumn. The BOS leaders said at the time that they would join UNO only if Calero stepped down as leader of the FDN.

Reports of Calero’s intransigence, and of his backing from the White House and the CIA over other leaders, were disturbing to several moderate Democrats and Republicans who had, for the first time, voted for aid to the rebels last June and been promised by the President that human-rights abuses by the FDN would be strictly punished. They included Representative David McCurdy (D-Oklahoma), Dante Fascell (D-Florida), William Richardson (D-New Mexico), and Senator David Durenberger (R-Minnesota). After they expressed concern to the administration, Cruz was able to get support and funds for an independent UNO human-rights office, based in Costa Rica, to investigate the FDN’s abuses. The office opened in January with a staff that included Ismael Reyes, the former president of the Nicaraguan Red Cross, Roberto Ferrey, who was exiled by Somoza and later became a legal adviser to the Sandinista ministry of justice, and Alberto Gamez Ortega, a former vice-minister of justice in the Sandinista government. They say they are collecting information on abuses both by the FDN and the Sandinistas. Whether they will have real power to monitor the FDN’s activities and punish abuses remains to be seen. The UNO began talks with BOS in November that were soon suspended, and then resumed, with no results so far. There is little visible evidence that the basic situation described by LeMoyne, in which the dominance of Calero and Bermúdez is supported by the White House and the CIA, has changed.


While the top leaders of the FDN continue to refuse to share real power with such former supporters of the revolution as Cruz, Robelo, and César, the guerrilla forces themselves are too large and have too much support inside the country to be dismissed simply as a tool of the CIA, Bermúdez, and Calero. There are some twenty thousand active armed insurgents from a Nicaraguan population of three million, of which the FDN makes up about twelve thousand. Absolutely and relative to each country’s population, they outnumber the Salvadoran guerrillas—nine thousand in a population of five million. The FDN claims that 40 percent of its troops are former Sandinista soldiers and less than 2 percent former national guardsmen.

The “contras” are no longer mercenary bands striking from border sanctuaries. Those who claim that the rebels could not exist without outside funding and training should recall the arguments that were made against the administration that the rebels in Salvador were a genuine indigenous force. In 1984 Sandinista officials acknowledged that quite aside from the troops in Honduras and Costa Rica, there were as many as eight thousand rebels inside Nicaragua. They have been unable to hold any territory against the Sandinistas’ artillery and aerial attacks, but guerrilla units are able to move through three quarters of Nicaragua’s mountainous terrain.

Daylight ambushes of army convoys suggest that, like the Salvadoran guerrillas, they receive information from local residents. The Miami Herald reported that the insurgents “appear to enjoy substantial and growing support among small farmers and campesinos.” Dan Williams of the Los Angeles Times noted that when an FDN force briefly captured La Trinidad, a village in the historically pro-Sandinista region of Estelí, “peasants led the contras through Sandinista bases in the mountains.”16 Marcel Neidergang of Le Monde reported on November 25, 1985, that the contras’ ability to open a new front of the war in the central Nicaraguan departments of Chontales and Boaco, nearly two hundred miles from the Honduran border, was “doubtless a sign of the complicity of the region’s peasants.” (Neidergang’s report in Le Monde of December 3 gave further evidence of such “complicity.”)

Such rebel sympathies on the part of the rural population were apparently among the main reasons the government decided to evacuate large numbers of peasants last spring to establish a free fire zone. According to The New York Times of March 19, 1985, the forced evacuation

had two objectives, according to Sandinista officials [in Jinotega] and Western diplomats in Managua who specialize in military matters. The first is to deprive the rebels of material support and intelligence by removing relatives and neighbors sympathetic to them from war zones. But equally important, these sources said, is the creation of “free fire zones” where the Sandinista People’s Army can operate freely among the rebels.

Journalists reported that in the areas around San Juan de Limay and El Naranjo Sandinista troops burned peasants’ houses to prevent them from returning.17

“Unlike the struggle against Somoza,” wrote former Panamanian vice-minister of health Hugo Spadafora a few months before he was murdered by Panamanian National Guardsmen in the fall of 1985, “this war…is predominantly a peasant insurrection.” Spadafora was a doctor who once fought alongside the Sandinistas in 1979 and then later joined with Pastora and Rivera against the regime. He complained that the press “has neglected almost completely to cover the war in depth, in the heart of the country, the natural epicenter of the campesino insurrection.” The top rebel leaders, he said, “feel threatened when the media tries to cover the war inside Nicaragua since…international exposure…will raise the status of middle level cadres that direct and maintain the war effort deep within the country.”

The growth of the FDN has created strains between the peasants, who make up its ranks, and the FDN leadership, which is still tied, as we have seen, to Nicaragua’s ancien régime. The FDN troops have their own heroes and their own peasant mistica, which should not be confused with that of the FDN’s ancestor, the September 15 Legion. Most of the FDN troops are peasants, small landholders, shopkeepers, and dirt farmers from the rugged and deeply Catholic north and from the cattle country in central Nicaragua. Most of them are dedicated to overthrowing the Sandinistas, whose agricultural policies left them much worse off, while government controls became more severe.

Some sense of their feelings is given by a scholarly study of the revolution by Professor Forrest D. Colburn of Princeton, to be published in May.18 Colburn writes that his general aim is to describe “the intentions of the Sandinista revolutionary elite and to explain why their rosy expectations were dashed even before they were confronted with a US-financed counter revolution.” He writes:

The inability of the revolution to date to provide a better standard of living and the continuing call for sacrifices have made many rural Nicaraguans sharply critical of the Sandinistas. For example, peasants interviewed outside the Jinotega said they felt the Sandinistas were “working for themselves, and not for the people.” More commonly, rural laborers are cynical, with the hope they had at the onset of the revolution dashed. When discussing their life since the revolution, peasants often make such comments as, “Estamos jodidos” (“We are screwed”). The attitude of many toward the regime is summed up by such remarks, common throughout rural Nicaragua, as “La misma mierda, solamente las moscas son diferente” (“The same shit; only the flies are different”) and “Un hueso diferente, el mismo perro” (“A different bone, the same dog”).

Colburn goes on to say that “the disenchantment of the rural poor cannot by any means be equated with support for the counterrevolution but it does complicate the already difficult task of improving the welfare of rural laborers.” The attitudes he describes, in my view, help to explain the cooperation with the rebels that reporters have observed. The FDN, on the other hand, has shown little interest in recruiting middle-class young people from the cities in southern Nicaragua. Many young refugees from the cities prefer to sit out the war in camps in Honduras and Costa Rica because they do not trust the rebel leaders.

According to James LeMoyne, among the rebel groups themselves there is much unhappiness with the current CIA-imposed leadership, and many of the rebels he interviewed believed that a new, more legitimate leadership is needed.19 Comandantes in the field often share their troops’ resentment of the FDN high command.20 As one former Pastora associate described them, “They’re a mixed bag of Zapatas and Pancho Villas,” i.e., peasant revolutionaries and rebel brigands. The FDN is a movement with a peasant base, some populist middle-echelon officers, and a mostly reactionary leadership imposed and maintained by the US.

The presence of former national guardsmen in the FDN officer corps is not in itself decisive. Former guardsmen occupy positions in most factions of the civil war. Bernardino Larios, the first Sandinista defense minister, was a former national guardsmen. Some FDN officers, according to Richard Millett, the leading authority on the National Guard,

were last-minute additions to the guard; had they been offered any chance to return after the revolution, they would have likely done so. But no offer was made and they became permanent exiles whose only real hope of returning was to overthrow the new regime.21

But what is of greater concern is the fact that the FDN high command, with one exception, is drawn entirely from the National Guard, and many were senior officers in it. Most of these men are intensely loyal to Enrique Bermúdez and are called “Enrique’s group.” Together with Adolfo Calero and Aristides Sanchez they form a cabal that is closely linked to a shadowy network of expropriated landowners, bankers, and industrialists, and former associates of Somoza. These exiles influence the FDN leadership through family ties or as former or current employers. Most supplies for the FDN, as LeMoyne reported, “are handled by Mr. Calero and Mr. Calero’s brother and brother-in-law.” Surrounding the FDN are former Somocista military officials like “El Tigre” Medina. In April Calero was host at a fund-raising dinner at Medina’s Miami restaurant; and in July a party was given in honor of Calero by the richest members of the Miami exile community. This reminded some of those present of similar celebrations in honor of Somoza.


During the last half of 1985 the military initiative swung in the direction of the government. The Sandinistas, who have had much difficulty in organizing militias in rural zones, have been flying in troops to counter rebel raids on villages. In August in La Trinidad, and again in November in San Domingo in central Nicaragua, the Sandinistas used several Soviet-made MI-24 helicopters to disperse rebel attackers. In both cases the helicopters caused civilian casualties. On the second occasion the rebels brought down a Soviet-made MI-8 helicopter, with a SA-7 anti-aircraft missile probably purchased in Portugal. The US administration claimed the helicopter was piloted by a Cuban.22 As Edward Cody of The Washington Post wrote recently (December 6, 1985):

The Popular Sandinista Army, advised by Cuban officers and supplied through Soviet allies, has altered its size, tactics, organization and equipment significantly in the last two years to repel the guerrillas with increased speed and force, according to Nicaraguan officials and other military sources.

The main rebel organization, the Honduras-based Nicaraguan Democratic Force, has suffered from a cutoff in CIA funding and logistical support during roughly the same period. As a result, according to these assessments, the rebels have been unable to resume the high level of attacks reached in the summer and fall of 1984.

Furthermore, the FDN rebels are not only politically divided, as we have seen, but poorly trained, and lacking in first-rate combat officers partly because of the absence of urban recruits.

The war, meanwhile, has had little direct effect on Nicaragua’s cities. It is difficult to know just what large numbers of people feel about the rebels. In August and November of 1984 I talked with more than a dozen people in Monimbo, the enclave of some fifty-five hundred Indians in the city of Masaya where an insurrection in February 1978 set off the uprising against Somoza. They told me that they and their neighbors listened regularly to the FDN’s clandestine radio. They spoke admiringly of Edén Pastora. They told me they would support the rebels even though they distrusted the “Guardas,” i.e., the national guardsmen.

I heard similar views from people I talked to in the shantytowns around Managua and also in the provincial cities of Léon, Chinandega, and Estelí, where there were insurrections against Somoza in 1978. In two towns in Estelí province, several parents told me that their sons had gone off to join the rebels. Other poor people I talked to would start by supporting the regime and then express critical views as they overcame their initial distrust. Some who were critical of the regime were also opposed to the rebels. But the willingness of Nicaraguans who had fought against Somoza to cooperate with rebels, many of whose leaders are tainted with Somozismo, seemed to me to reflect a sense of desperation.

The FDN has done little to take advantage of growing urban discontent. This is not entirely because Sandinista control makes it difficult. That same month, the national leader of the CDSs (Sandinista Defense Committees), Leticia Herrera, announced that block committee watches would have to be reduced for lack of popular participation. She acknowledged that some block committee leaders are considered “caciques de barrios” (neighborhood bosses). It is not only Sandinista security forces that have prevented the FDN from organizing dissidents in the cities; it is the narrowly militaristic character of the FDN itself. Its grave defects prevent it from rallying enough support inside and outside Nicaragua to modify the regime.

Nicaragua’s civil war is a shocking sequel to the “beautiful revolution.” As a New York Times correspondent commented:

Some of the violence…can only be described as fratricidal. Witnesses to the killing of Bayardo Centeno, an official of the Plantanares cooperatives, say his own cousin executed him using a machine gun and then a bayonet.

“One has the impression that a lot of personal scores are being settled,” said a diplomat in Managua.23 Americas Watch and other human-rights organizations have collected many statements from Nicaraguans charging appalling abuses by the FDN and Misura. The FDN’s abuses have been reported to include deliberate terrorist tactics, kidnapping, sexual abuse of women captives, torture, routine summary execution of prisoners, causing people to “disappear” in Honduras, forcible recruitments, and selective murder of civilians. American journalists have published many accounts by witnesses who say they have seen atrocities committed by the FDN.24 In its latest report, Amnesty International states:

While some prisoners were reportedly taken to bases outside Nicaragua by opposition forces, the forces of the FDN were more frequently reported to retain no prisoners, killing captives on the spot or after brief field interrogation. In some areas they reportedly killed their captive before the assembled residents of target communities.

The FDN’s spokesmen have acknowledged some of these abuses, but its leaders have yet to show that they have an effective mechanism for monitoring the behavior of the soldiers who commit them. (Last autumn one FDN officer was released from command after executing three Sandinista prisoners and the FDN now says he will be tried. It also announced in November that sixty officers were being trained to monitor human-rights abuses.) They argue that indiscriminate terror against civilians would be inconsistent with the FDN’s rapid growth, although it is of course possible for both selective terror against supporters of the Sandinistas and recruitment of those who oppose them to take place at the same time. The Sandinista army, the FDN and Miskito leaders say, deliberately endangers noncombatants through “civilian shielding”—mixing soldiers and civilians in convoys, etc. Both sides appear to be guilty of indiscriminately placing land mines.


What explains Nicaragua’s descent into violence? Unlike Guatemala and El Salvador, Nicaragua has in the past been largely free of death squads and unchecked state violence, except in the later years of Somoza. Part of the explanation, certainly, lies in the desires for revenge on the part of former guardsmen in the FDN and the willingness of the CIA and the Reagan administration to sponsor such forces, which they have been unable or unwilling to control. But from former government officials, among others, we learn that the Sandinistas’ own actions have also helped to create the climate of violence. Jorge Alaniz Pinell, the Sandinistas’ representative to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva between 1980 and 1982, and now in exile in Paris, has described, in his book Nicaragua, two massacres in which a total of 130 former guardsmen who were held in detention were killed before 1981. The Lawyers Committee on International Human Rights has documented abuses by the Sandinista “Popular tribunals,” such as intimidation of witnesses and defense lawyers and “coercive forms of interrogation.”

A recent Sandinista defector trained in police methods in Moscow, Alvaro Baldizon, estimates that two thousand Nicaraguans have been kidnapped, tortured, or executed by Sandinista authorities since the revolution. Baldizon charges that in late 1981 Tomás Borge approved a secret plan for “special measures”—i.e., assassinations—to be carried out by small squads of no more than five persons against low-and mid-level opposition activists, peasants judged sympathetic to the rebels, captured prisoners, and Miskito Indians. When I interviewed Baldizon he told me that he personally knew of some six hundred such special assassinations. He claimed he had verified the existence of clandestine cemeteries for “special measures” victims in two war zones.

Baldizon served as a special investigator in Borge’s Ministry of Interior. He says that Borge, concerned by queries from international human-rights organizations about missing Nicaraguans that often implicated his ministry, and fearful of losing support from friendly Latin American and European governments, set up a special investigations committee in December 1982, to which Baldizon was assigned. According to Baldizon, 90 percent of the allegations against Sandinista security forces from the families of victims proved accurate. In June 1985 Baldizon fled to Honduras with a large folder of official committee documents containing information on the committee’s handling of the cases it considered. The documents include accounts of investigations of numerous executions and disappearances and a memo from an officer of the special investigation committee referring to “special measures.”

On December 3, Americas Watch, which is investigating Baldizon’s charges, sent him a letter raising many questions, particularly about the number of executions he reports and about what Americas Watch regards as discrepancies in his statements. Americas Watch director Aryeh Neier believes that

some of Baldizon’s information is accurate, and it certainly should be further investigated, as we are trying to do. So far, we find his claim that, to his knowledge, the Sandinistas have killed six hundred civilians inconsistent with the information compiled by the anti-Sandinista Permanent Commission for Human Rights in Managua, the OAS’s Latin American Commission on Human Rights, as well as Americas Watch. These organizations have reported information on approximately three hundred killings and disappearances of civilians carried out by the Sandinistas, apart from combat, since 1980.

Baldizon showed me the draft of a point-by-point reply. According to him, the apparent discrepancy is explained by the widespread fear among Nicaraguans of reprisals by the pervasive security apparatus when they make denunciations to human-rights organizations. The issues between Baldizon and Americas Watch are still to be resolved. His story remains deeply disturbing, however, especially since he was in a position to learn of executions and other abuses that could have remained unknown to the human-rights organizations.

Another disturbing account comes from Mateo Guerrero, former executive director of the National Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, a man who worked closely with organizations like Amnesty International. Guerrero says that in late 1984 Alejandro Bendana, the secretary general of the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry, told him his organization should stop investigating complaints of Nicaraguans and act instead as “an arm of Nicaraguan foreign policy,” devoting itself to denouncing “contra” abuses. Guerrero “could not stand lying any more,” so he defected.

Guerrero told me he was looking into the case of a “disappeared” farm worker named Ramon Ordonez Ramírez who, he discovered, notwithstanding government denials, had been held in state prison and probably mistreated. (In Washington Guerrero was told by Baldizon that Ordonez had been assassinated, one of the last “special measures” cases Baldizon investigated in May 1985.) When the government published a statement that Ordonez had been freed, the Ordonez family blamed Guerrero for complicity with the government’s lies. Press accounts of Guerrero’s own findings on Ordonez’s treatment had been censored. Later, Guerrero says, he was harassed and threatened by Sandinista groups for being “a defender of Somocistas.” The FDN, meanwhile, accused him of concealing Sandinista atrocities and broadcast notices of his physical description and whereabouts. “For discovering certain irregularities, I was now in jeopardy both from the Sandinistas and the counterrevolution.”

Just as an increasing number of Nicaraguans are caught in the cross fire of widening civil war, so too the American public is caught in a bitter propaganda war over Nicaragua. In a final article, I will consider America’s own entanglement and the bleak prospects for any settlement of the conflict.