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Fighting the Soviet Imperialists: The Contras in Nicaragua

An inside look at Nicaragua's anti-Marxist rebels—who they are and why they are fighting.

Ordinarily, I like being in jungles. I've spent time in many of them, from the Amazon in Ecuador to the Sepik in New Guinea, the Ituri in Africa, and the Montagnard Highlands of South Vietnam. But this time, it was different.

It was the summer of 1983, and I was clandestinely crossing the border from Honduras into Nicaragua with a patrol of 90 FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Force) guerrillas. The FDN is one of several rebel groups—collectively known as the "Contras"—who are trying to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which is backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. My month-long sojourn with the Contras marked the beginning of a multi-continent investigation of Third World anti-Soviet guerrilla movements that took me from Central America to Afghanistan and Africa.

My special high-tech boots of which I was so proud were no match for the mud of the Central American rain forest, nor for the Contras' mode of travel: straight up the side of one forested mountain, straight down the other, avoiding anything remotely resembling a trail or path, over and over and over—and over—again. It had started to rain, but my clothes were so thoroughly drenched with sweat that it made no difference. I had forgotten what it was like not to be thirsty. Even though I kept filling my water bottle at every opportunity and lacing it with a powdered electrolyte replacement, I was far more dehydrated than I had ever been in, say, Timbuktu in the Sahara Desert.

For guerrillas, the Contras I was with were well equipped: Belgian FAL automatic rifles; "Thumper" grenade launchers; LAW rockets (made famous by Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" Callaghan in the movie The Enforcer)', a few Soviet RPG-7 grenade launchers, AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles, and AK-47 ammunition in boxes with Arabic lettering (captured PLO stuff very likely provided by the Israelis, though the Israeli government denies this); flashlights, walkie-talkies, good fighting knives, web harness gear, canteens, new blue-green uniforms, and US Army ankle-length jungle boots with deep-lugged soles—all the latter from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

During a rest break, I tried on a couple of spare pairs of these jungle boots the fellows had with them, but they were too small. Finally, a large, fair-skinned Contra whose code name was "Yankee" took off his own and insisted that I try them on. They fit. Somehow, Yankee squeezed into another pair, and off we went again. Now I wouldn't be holding everyone up by continually swan-diving into the slippery mud. I was even able to catch up with Charley.

Charley was point man for the patrol. I'll never forget my first sight of him as he emerged from the jungle, built like a black Baryshnikov, sporting a Belgian FAL rifle and a Soviet RPG -7. If all the Contras are like this, I thought, the Sandinistas are in real trouble.

Charley Fitzeral is 22, a Creole (black) whose family moved from Bluefields, in eastern Nicaragua, to the capital, Managua, when Charley was a young boy. Charley's grandfather was a black American businessman who met a lady from Corn Island, off Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, while on vacation. They ended up settling down in Bluefields.

Charley's father is a diesel mechanic who made the mistake of telling his neighbors and friends that he thought the Sandinistas didn't really believe in democracy and their promise for elections was a lie. For this, Charley told me, his father was accused of being a reactionary counterrevolutionary, arrested three times, beat up very severely, and had his fingernails ripped off in a prison torture cell. His father's brother, Charley's uncle, was also arrested and disappeared. So in December 1981, Charley decided to join the FDN.

At the time, Charley was majoring in engineering at UNAN (National Autonomous University of Nicaragua), in Managua. But Charley was a little more than just another college student—in 1976, he was a member of the Nicaraguan Olympic Team in the Montreal Olympic Games. Charley dreams of the day when the war will be over, when he can return to athletics and continue his education in engineering and telecommunications. But in the meantime, one of Nicaragua's most famous athletes is fighting with the Contras.

Charley and I became friends almost immediately. I told him he looked much like the great rock star Chuck Berry, and he flashed a brilliant white smile. We talked of his being in the Olympics and why he was with the anti-Sandinista guerrillas. "I was so proud to represent my country in the Olympic Games, and in many other international competitions as well," he said to me, with tears welling up in his eyes. "I want so much to be proud of my country. So I must fight to put an end to this nightmare the piricuacos [what the Contras call the Sandinistas: Spanish for "rabid dogs"] are making my people suffer, fight for a free and democratic Nicaragua."

When he was dictator of Nicaragua from 1963 until the Sandinista takeover in 1979, Anastasio Somoza Debayle defended his regime by accusing anyone who opposed him of being a communist. Nicaragua's current rulers have adapted this technique, denouncing all those who object to their rule as "Somocistas"—reactionary counterrevolutionaries who want to drag Nicaragua back to the evil days of Somoza. Thus the nickname Contras for the FDN guerrillas: from "contra-revolucionarios," Spanish for counterrevolutionaries. As I came to know Charley and dozens of his fellow compatriots, I discovered how the Sandinistas' accusation is as absurd as was Somoza's.

Nicaragua lies athwart Central America, between Honduras on the north and Costa Rica on the south, the Pacific Ocean at its west coast, the Caribbean on the east. At a little over 50,000 square miles—about the size of Alabama or Greece—it is Central America's largest country. But, possessing a population of only some 2.5 million, it is also the region's most sparsely populated country (with a population density about that of Iowa's)—and, as tens of thousands of refugees have fled the country, today it is even more so. A little more than two-thirds of Nicaragua's citizens are mestizos—of mixed Spanish and native Indian lineage. About a fifth of the country's people are white; another tenth are black; and the remaining 5 percent are indigenous Indians.

During the first 20 years of Nicaragua's independence from Spain in 1821, a parade of 18 presidents followed each other in coup and countercoup. Its Spanish political heritage militated against the adoption of North American democratic ideals. Instead, coup d'état, intrigue, and revolution have been the norm, one caudillo strongman replacing another, all within the context of a continuous Mafia-style clan warfare between the Liberal party, based in the city of Granada, and the Conservative party, centered in Leon. Managua, the capital, is neutrally located between the two.

Like street gangs in the Bronx, the struggle between the two parties had more to do with the control of "turf" and political spoils than with ideals or ideology. Neither the Indians in the jungles of the north, such as the Miskitos, nor the Creole blacks of the east coast ever were considered in the rivalry or the country's development. Nicaragua's history, in the words of one observer, can be summarized as "an elitist competition between urban-based factions of mestizo [Spanish-Indian blood] clans."

Possibly the worst of the caudillos of either party to rule Nicaragua was the Liberal dictator José Santa Zelaya, who came to power in 1893. In 1909, a revolution against him started up in Bluefields, to which a contingent of US Marines was dispatched, ostensibly to protect the small American community living there. The Zelaya regime collapsed, and the US government responded to the ensuing political chaos, anarchy, and violence by maintaining an American military presence (primarily a Legation Guard of 100 Marines) on and off until 1933.

Historian J. Tierney has written of US policy toward Nicaragua during this period:

U.S. officials grew firm in their belief that only a true democracy, with free elections, could produce a permanent political stability. This produced an inherent political contradiction in U.S. policy. Thus, the U.S. began demanding both stability and democracy in Nicaragua, political goals which had been mutually exclusive throughout the country's history. Eventually, one would have to go.

(Journalist Walter Lippmann, however, saw the situation in different terms. To Lippman, America's involvement in Nicaragua was nothing but dollar diplomacy, with Nicaragua an "American protectorate." As Ronald Steel reports in his book Walter Lippmann and the American Century, Lippmann wrote, in response to President Coolidge's dispatch of Marines to Nicaragua in 1927, that the Central American nation was "not an independent republic, that its government is the creature of the State Department, that management of its finances and the direction of its domestic and foreign affairs are determined not in Nicaragua but in Wall Street.")

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