Previews and Reviews of The Real Contra War
Highlander Peasant Resistance -in Nicaragua

(University of Oklahoma: Norman, 2001)
(available on Amazon)

Dr. Timothy C. Brown


In his Preface, Dr. Brown recounts that “from 1987 through 1990, three group photographs adorn the walls of my office inside a vault within the American Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. One was of the Nine Comandantes of the 1979-90 Sandinista Revolution, one of the civilian directors of the Nicaraguan Resistance and one of Contra fighters. Without exception, the Sandinistas and Resistance directors were  white Europeans from the country's dominant elite: The Contras were indios from a different world.”
Circa 1988, press conference – Resistance Directors Adolfo Calero (left) and Arturo Cruz (right), civilian directors of the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance, the Contras (author’s collection).
On the left, Boca de Yamales, Honduras, circa 1981 – volunteers preparing to join Contras. On the right,  wounded Contra comandos at rehabilitation hospital in rural Honduras, circa 1989. The photo on the right was taken by former Governor of Nevada Mike O’Callaghan (author’s collections).

Ninety-five percent of the FDN comandos were highlander indio peasants; seven percent were women; nine thousand returned to just seventeen peasant communities deep within Nicaragua's central mountains (and) more than 80,000 entirely unanticipated civilian FDN supporters, increasing the number of Contras going home to more than 100,000. And an even larger and less expected group of Contras was there to greet them, the 400,000 to 500,000 peasants of their organized support system who had fed, housed, helped and hid the comandos through eleven years of war. The "Contras" turned out not to be merely the armed tip of a popular peasant resistance movement with more than half a million activists and even more sympathizers.

A top OAS peacemaker, Sergio Caramagna, states bluntly [in When the AK-47s Fall Silent], “The very first lesson we learned in Nicaragua was not to bring prejudices and preconceptions to such a process. For indeed we brought our own biases and fears with us. [The highlander resistance] was very difficult and far more complex than we had been led to believe by only previous source of information, wartime propaganda. And because the OAS, along with the rest of the outside world, had believed the Black Legend of the Contras, the peace process initially failed.”

Chapter 1
A Whole Bunch of Really Pissed Off Peasants

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

On the left, Contra comandos near Yamales salient, circa 1982. On the right, a Contra patrol preparing to re-enter Nicaragua, circa 1988.

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

“On 23 July 1980, several MILPAS groups captured Quilali. Cuba’s Fidel Castro, in Nicaragua at the time, was a mere 15 miles away, giving a speech. The army launched helicopter patrols and infantry sweeps and also acted against one of their own units that had mutinied and refused to fight, arresting the police commander of Quilali, who had abandoned his post under fire and led away most of the towns best armed troops, leaving the city defenseless. The Sandinistas blamed the attack on former Guardia, although no Guardia had yet taken part in combat.

Chapter 3
Dimas, Father of the Contras

"Dimas was the most prominent highlander among the Sandinistas guerrilla field commanders. He had joined the struggle against the Somoza dynasty in 1969. From 1972 through 1979 he commanded a guerrilla column as deputy to the MILPAS battalion’s well known guerrilla commander, German Pomares El Danto, who was killed by a bullet fired from within the ranks of his own unit during an attack on Jinotega in May 1979."

Quilali, Nicaragua, 1979 – Dimas, center, with four unidentified comrades near cemetery (photo courtesy  of Marina).

"In early May 1979 the Sandinista’s political cadre began telling their officers at meetings that they had developed a comprehensive plan of how they would rule once they’d seized power. What they described was a Marxist revolution. El Danto had railed loudly against the Sandinista’s plans. About three weeks later, on 24 May, El Danto was killed during an attack on the highlands town of Jinotega. Initial reports claimed that he had been shot by a Guardia sniper firing from the tower of the town’s cathedral. But the place where he fell cannot be seen from the cathedral, and everyone familiar with Jinotega knew it.”

Chapter 7
Foreign Entanglements

Costa Rica, Cuba, the CIA – and Beyond

"From early 1978 through July 1979, Cuba shipped at least 2,000 tons of arms and munitions to the Sandinista Front in Costa Rica alone with the active cooperation and support of the Costa Rican government. The material arrived via more than 400 cargo flights directly from Cuba. Former Costa Rican President José "Pepe" Figueres said of the final 1978-79 pushed against the Somozas, “Had it not been for arms from Cuba and Costa Rican government support for Sandinista operations, the war (against Somoza) could not have been fought. It would not have been possible."

"During their first three years in power, the Sandinistas received an estimated $310 million in military assistance. According to Sandinista military inventories classified Muy Secreto, Top Secret, by October 1987 the Sandinista army had 420,000 small arms and 567 million rounds of ammunition in its official arsenals and was asking for 149,056 more small arms, mostly automatic rifles and 230 million more rounds of ammunition. These did not include about 180,000 small arms left over from the estimated 267,000 Cuba had supplied to overthrow Somoza."

[NOTE: Four pages of the Top Secret arms inventory of the Sandinista People’s Army (Ejercito Popular Sandinistas - EPS) are included in The Real Contra War at “Appendix E: EPS Arms Inventory and Requests”]

CIA Involvement, 1979-80

“The first serious offers of covert American paramilitary help made to those who were to become Nicaraguan Contras were reportedly approaches to the Legion 15 de Septiembre (a largely Somoza Guardia movement) in Guatemala at the very end of 1979 and early 1980, while Jimmy Carter was still President. They involve both Americans and Argentines, with the Argentines acting as the CIA's cover. The evidence became convincing because so many separate sources that were unacquainted with one another described having contacts during that period with American and Argentine intelligence agents. Also in December 1979, two American CIA agents visited the Nicaraguan exile’s safe house near Guatemala City’s La Aurora Airport. One told them he was the agency's Chief of Station in Tegucigalpa and that the United States was ready to give them covert paramilitary help if they could show they were serious."
Bocay, Honduras, 1988. The only US government official authorized to do so, the author helicoptered onto the still active Bocay battlefield on the Honduras-Nicaragua border. The photo on the left, of a Contra is calling fire, was taken by him. The one on the right of the author (left) was taken by a Contra field commander during his visit to the battlefield. Shortly after it was taken, incoming Katyushin rockets caused them to run for cover.

Chapter 9
Structure and Organization of the Highlander Resistance Movement


"The vast majority of the activist participants in the Highland rebellion remained hidden from public view throughout the war. Even the closest of outside observers were not aware of them for security reasons, each comarca [peasant community] system of correos, clandestine committees, and popular support bases was free-standing and compartmentalize, existing only in relation to the local community. The FDN's Strategic Headquarters knew about and promoted their existence. But they were not centrally organized at that level and had no headquarters. In all but rare instances, the identities, numbers, and activities of correos, clandestine comarca committee members, and popular base supporters were kept secret by the units that they served and almost never reported to higher headquarters."


"The correos were the eyes, ears and brains of the Resistance. Without them it could not have succeeded."
Comandante Emiliano

"One document found in the ACRN’s archives describes the [clandestine support] system in several comarcas in some detail, listing nine principal missions they performed. It is the only documentary description available of clandestine comarca committee operations…..

Mission 1: To coordinate both overt and covert operations in their comarca.
Mission 2: To manage local contributions in kind or in currency. 
Mission 3: To direct pro-Resistance political activities in their comarca.
Mission 4: To collect and disseminate military and political intelligence on Sandinista activities in and near the comarca.
Mission 5: To establish and maintain safe houses and weapons caches.
Mission 6: To establish and operate escape and evasion networks. 
Mission 7: To collect and provide logistical support to the combat units.
Mission 8: To organize, equip, and train a warning network that could give the alarm in case of Sandinista army or other suspicious movements near comando units.
Mission 9: To recruit new comandos.

These [clandestine networks] were the rebellion's first and largest source of support. In October 1982, a Resistance report on Nueva Segovia estimated its popular support in one operating region at 98%.

Chapter 10
Women Comandos - Heroines, Combatants, and Comarca Leaders

"Women played a crucial role in the rebellion. Legionnaire L-332, Juan José Martinez Tercero, was killed in combat in November 1983, two years after he entered the resistance in 1981. His mother, Dominga, could not mourn his death. She had died in battle earlier in 1983 during Operation Marathon. On September 5, 1984, in the middle of an extended combat patrol inside Nicaragua, FDN Comandant Dimas Negro received a message from fellow Comandante Toro that forced him to perform one of a commanding officers saddest tasks. He had to tell a commando serving under him, Pablo, that his wife had been killed that day in combat while serving as a front-line commando with another unit, that of Toro."

"Woman resistance fighters played key roles during the insurgency. They served by the hundreds as front-line commandos with FDN combat units. Others were radio operators, nurses, or trained cadre. They were fully integrated into infantry task forces, carried the same backpacks, ate the same food, slept under the same conditions, wore the same kinds of uniforms, and carried the same weapons as the male commandos. It appears that 5.7% of the commandos killed were women. Extrapolation from the estimated 8,500- 10,500 FDN commandos killed in action suggests that from 456 to 570 women commandos died in combat"

On the left, near El Jicaro, Nicaragua, 1985 – Two female Contra comandos are taking a break. La Cachita, on the right, was killed in action not long after this photo was taken. This photo was taken by her commanding officer, Mike Lima.  The photo on the right of another female Contra combatant with her baby was taken by the author during battle of Bocay, Honduras, 1988 (the author’s collection).

Chapter 17
Resistance and Survival

“Genio y cultura hasta la sepulture - personality and identity, from womb to tomb."
a peasant proverb

"Political psychology offers the best tools for understanding how a Marxist revolution can trigger an extremely violent peasant reaction and to historical examples seem especially useful as compared to cases: the Marxist- Kulak clashes that led to efforts to de-Kulakiz (eradicate the peasantry) the Soviet Union and the 1959–65 Escambray peasant rebellion against the Cuban revolution. When compared, the Escambray rebellion looks like a rehearsal for Nicaragua's Highlander peasant rebellion."

Chapter 18
Conclusions - The Black Legend of the Contras

"One really puzzle is how the image of the Contras had deviated so far from reality. Their public image was almost entirely a product of an externally generated and highly negative discourse. How? A wartime example suggests an explanation. In 1986 a Spanish Roman Catholic Bishop, Pedro Casaldaliga, took a Sandinista-organized Potemkin village style tour of the Segovia and highlands and then wrote a book that told what he had "learned." One of his points was that "there is no civil war in Nicaragua. To say or think such a thing would reflect a stupidity or a perverse come to city. The reality of death and destruction taking place in Nicaragua is a result of the war of aggression the government of the United States has declared." He also "learned" that the Contras were “all, without exception, former Somoza Guardia mercenaries hired by the CIA, and real mad men, inhuman and usually on drugs". He heard some peasant complaints to the contrary, but rejected these out of hand by reminding himself "how hard it is for a revolution to be accepted by all the people. Had either Reagan or Casaldaliga heard Abuelito (a Contra elder) say they were " just a whole bunch of really pissed off peasants", neither o them would have believed him. For them, the Contra’s war-time image was reality.”

Foreign Policy Association Bookstore, 2002 Editor's Picks

The Real Contra War: Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua
Timothy C. Brown
March 02, 2001

Relying on original documents, interviews with veterans, and other primary sources, Brown contradicts conventional wisdom about the Contras, debunking most of what has been written about the movement's leaders, origins, aims, and foreign support...

The Real Contra War: Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua

(University of Oklahoma Press, 2001, 352 pp., $29.95)

Dr. Mark Falcoff, PhD - American Enterprise Institute

(in The World and I, July, 2001)

Dr. Timothy C. Brown

In 1986, a Roman Catholic bishop from Spain visited Nicaragua and toured the Segovian highlands, where the authority of the Sandinista government in Managua was then under heavy challenge by an opposition guerrilla force--the so-called Contras--supported by the Reagan administration. The visit convinced the bishop that what was taking place in Nicaragua was not a civil war; rather, he told the international press, “the reality of death and destruction taking place [there] is a result of the war of aggression that the government of the United States has declared.” He further explained that the Contras were, without exception, former officers of the dictator Somoza’s hated National Guard, mercenaries hired by the CIA. Though negligible in number and lacking in popular support, the bishop continued, they survived due to the shameful policies of the United States.

The Bishop’s view was by no means exceptional. Quite the contrary. It was conventional wisdom throughout Western Europe, Latin America, and Canada and, in time, became so in the United States. A burgeoning movement of opposition to the Contras was spearheaded by church groups, human-rights organizations, intellectuals, artists, health workers, and civil libertarians--and by such distinguished lawmakers as Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-Rhode Island), then the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts); and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut). Between 1982 and 1990, not an evening passed that national television news did not chronicle some Contra “atrocity,” and when an American activist was killed by a Contra patrol, the level of hysteria reached new heights. Finally, in 1987-88, Congress suspended military and economic aid to the force..

Somewhat surprisingly, however, the Contras did not go away. After the 1990 elections in Nicaragua, in which the Sandinistas’ opponent Violeta Chamorro emerged--to the amazement of many--as the real choice of Nicaraguans, a mission from the Organization of American States was sent to the country to verify the demobilization of the insurgent army. By mid-1991, some 28,000 combatants emerged from the Segovias, roughly three times the number the mission had expected to encounter. Even more surprising were the social indicators. Fully 95 percent were highland indio peasants, and 7 percent were women. Some 9,000 returned to just seventeen peasant communities. Even more striking was the presence of 80,000 sympathizers who were living with them in their sanctuaries. When this army and its followers--100,000 in all--returned home, they were greeted by an organized support network of between 400,000 and 500,000 people. Thus, Timothy Brown writes, the Contras were “not . . . a small, unrepresentative, American-created army, but merely the armed tip of a popular peasant resistance movement with more than a million and a half participants and even more sympathizers.” Nothing else can explain the survival of the Contra phenomenon after the congressional cutoff of funds. The Real Contra War is its true story..

Brown is uniquely qualified to write it. A veteran of twenty-seven years of diplomatic service in Paraguay, Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras, he served in Nicaragua in 1956-59 and again in 1987-90, when he was senior liaison officer to the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance (the name official Washington bestowed on the Contra force). Perhaps even more significant, he had previously spent ten years in the U.S. Marine Corps, studying insurgencies in Thailand, Burma, Laos, Indonesia, and the Philippines..

Thanks to the contacts he established in Nicaragua during his second tour there, Brown obtained access to 265,000 pages of resistance archives. These he supplemented with another 300,000 pages of formerly classified U.S. government documents, as well as the eight-volume investigation undertaken by a parliamentary commission in Costa Rica. Most important of all, he interviewed forty of the surviving resistance commanders. The picture that emerges is vivid, detailed, and wholly at variance with the “official” version (see, for example, Robert Pastor, Condemned to Repetition: The United States and Nicaragua, 1987).

A Question of Identity - In reality, Brown explains, there were not one but five Contra armies. They were led primarily by former anti-Sandinistas, not former officers of Somoza’s National Guard. Some 80 percent of their followers were highland peasants. The rest were tribal Indians or black Creoles. “More than 96 percent of the troopers and combat leaders of Nicaragua’s largest Contra army,” Brown writes, “were simple mountain people: illiterate, unsophisticated, unworldly, perhaps, but also free, extremely attached to their land, homes, and families, and fiercely independent.”.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the anti-Sandinista war began not during the Reagan years but in 1979, which is to say, during the first months of Sandinista rule. It continued for three years without outside help or interference; it was only in 1982 that the United States sponsored an alliance between these resistance fighters and selected former officers of the guard. More intriguing still, there is what Brown calls “an enormous amount of evidence, everything just short of a smoking gun,” that in its final months the Carter administration reversed its policies completely and ordered the CIA to initiate contact with exiled former guard officers for the purpose of “helping their paramilitary efforts against the Sandinistas.” Presumably these feelers came to nothing, but their very existence gives the lie to the moralistic posturing of the ousted Carter team, including Pastor, which made life miserable for the Reagan administration in the 1980s..

The Roots of Rebellion - The sudden shift from anti-Somoza to anti-Sandinista fighters is easily explained. The Sandinistas’ vision for Nicaragua was hugely at variance with the wishes of their own people, particularly the fiercely independent mountain people. Having promised a regime similar to that of democratic Costa Rica, once in power the Sandinistas began to reshape their country in the image and likeness of Castro’s Cuba. The morning after victory their comandantes, most of whom were “white” city folk from the country’s Pacific coast who looked down on the Indians, moved into the mountains to impose a new order on society. On the pretext of confiscating the lands of Somocistas, they helped themselves somewhat indiscriminately to property and animals. Even many of those who had opposed Somoza were required to hand over their farms or livestock under the rubric of “loans to the revolution”; any who objected were labeled “counterrevolutionaries” and detained, tortured, or killed. Those who were allowed to keep their lands were forced to sell their produce at low prices and buy their necessities at high prices from the government..

The Sandinistas also showed a marked disrespect for the Catholic Church, mocking traditional religious practices and even quartering their troops in chapels. Uniformed officers of State Security treated young peasant women just as disrespectfully as their hated National Guard predecessors had. Young students were taken from their families and sent far away, to Pacific coast cities for ideological indoctrination. And peasant families were required to house and feed “literacy workers,” many of whom were arrogant and condescending..

The highland peasants were faced with two stark alternatives: to join the new Sandinistas’ agricultural cooperatives, a covert form of land expropriation, or resist. Their response was shrewd and creative. Many served in the new Sandinista army during the first six months of the revolutionary regime, taking advantage of their situation to stockpile arms and ammunition. By the time the Reagan administration brokered an agreement between them and former guard officers, the Contras were already veterans of three years of hard fighting in a terrain they knew well..

Brown’s account suggests some interesting comparisons between the anti-Somoza struggle of the Sandinistas and the anti-Sandinista struggle of the Contras. The former was relatively contained geographically and involved a small number of fighters; it also enjoyed regional and international support (at the very end of the anti-Somoza struggle, all the Latin American countries withdrew their ambassadors from Managua, and some countries--not just Cuba--were actively shipping arms and ammunition to the rebels). From the very start the Contra war had a bad press; it was opposed by all the major international and regional organizations; its support from the Argentine military and later the Reagan administration was fitful and inadequate. And yet the Contra war turned out to be longer, more widespread, and more genuinely popular. In a sense, it also turned out to be victorious..

Indeed, Brown makes the point that from both a geographic and ethnological point of view the Contra war was merely an extension of longer struggles in Nicaraguan history. Its geographical area coincides with the pre-Columbian homeland of the Chibchan Indians of South American origins, and the particular comarcas (that is to say, communities) that rebelled coincide with the places where Indian-Spanish battles occurred from 1526 to as recently as 1923. “The Contra war,” he concludes, “can thus be viewed as simply a modern manifestation of a centuries-old pattern of resistance with deep if latent ethnic roots.” The problem for the Sandinistas was that they triggered “an ethnic war. By employing Pacific coast urban standards and outsider ideologues who were openly ethnocentric, intolerant, and unwilling to treat the [peasants] with respect, they made impossible what would already have been extremely difficult”--namely, the Cubanization of Nicaragua..

A Troubling Question - Although The Real Contra War does not pose the question, one might well speculate how the true nature of the Nicaraguan insurgency managed to elude the understanding of so many intelligent and otherwise well-informed people, particularly given the intense media attention devoted to it for nearly a decade. Evidently, there is no single answer. Partisan politics, wishful thinking, and reflexive anti-Americanism (or anti-Reaganism) by foreigners and elite Americans influenced perceptions. So did you the endless search for utopias elsewhere by overprivileged Westerners and an organized campaign by communists and their sympathizers worldwide. Above all, attitudes were shaped by ignorance of the ethnology and sociology of rural Nicaragua..

It is perhaps worth noting that Brown’s book appears almost at the same time as the memoirs of former Nicaraguan vice president Sergio Ramirez (Adios muchachos, una memoria de la revolucion sandinista), published in Spain. Although writing f a rom a different ideological perspective, Ramirez confirms--in the spirit of deep self-criticism--many of the findings of The Real Contra War. The books converge in spirit, suggesting that a drastic revision of recent Nicaraguan history is in order..


THE REAL CONTRA WAR - Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua (University of Oklahoma Press, 2001)

Dr. Timothy C. Brown

A former US State Department liaison to the Contras argues that the Nicaraguan rebels were a collection of large indigenous forces that existed well before Ronald Reagan and Oliver North. Brown (Research Fellow/Hoover Institution) is no prose stylist. His text is at times stodgy, even soporific, and manifests all the dreary organizational principles of an undergraduate research paper. (Note by the author: Undergraduate, indeed! The Real Contra War was my PhD dissertation, approved by a seven member doctoral committee.)

But this is an important work all the same. For Brown has done his homework—reading the relevant histories of the region, interviewing scores of individuals in Nicaragua, and reviewing thousands of archival documents. He establishes that armed resistance to the Sandinista junta began in the Nicaraguan highlands immediately after their 1979 coup (before the US had become involved) and continued into 1990. He records unspeakable atrocities inflicted on the highlanders (including an account of a suspected Contra whose face was peeled away piece by piece by Sandinista thugs). Another revelation: The CIA began entering the picture in 1979–80 (during the Carter administration)—so historians can no longer lay the Contra war entirely at Reagan’s feet. Employing a variety of maps, tables, and charts, the author demonstrates that the highlanders—whose ethnic, social, and economic profile differed considerably from that of the generally more prosperous lowlanders—comprised the principal guerilla resistance to the Sandinistas. Brown describes, as well, the informal pyramid of popular support the guerillas required from their regions of operation and has an intriguing, though brief, chapter on the roles of women in battle (about seven percent of combatants were women). The final third of the volume deals swiftly with the country's history and sociology and with the aftermath of the war and the remarkable elections of 1996, which signaled both the end of Sandinistas’ fortunes and the emergence of the previously ignored highlanders’ political power.

Though expressed in prose that is at times eye-glazing, Brown’s evidence demands consideration and must alter our understanding of the recent history of both the US and Nicaragua. (20 b&w illustrations; 9 maps, not seen)

Dr. Elizabeth Burgos Debray, PhD

(Nuevo Mundos/Mundos Nuevos, Barcelona)

Brown, C. Timothy, When The AK-47s Fall Silent: Revolutionaries, Guerrillas, and the Dangers of Peace, Hoover Institution Press, Publication N. 476 Stanford University, 328p.; 2000

The Real Contra War: Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001, 321 p.

[Biographical note: Dr Elizabeth Burgos Debray is best known internationally as the ghost author of “I, Rigoberta”, the controversial book that earned Guatemalan Indian activist Rigoberta Menchu a Nobel Prize. A Venezuelan by birth, she studied clinical psychology at the University of Paris, ethnology at the School of Social Sciences in Paris and wrote a dissertation in comparative ethnopsychiatry. She became a revolutionary activist during the Perez Jimenez dictatorship, joining the Communist Party in 1963. Later trained in urban guerrilla warfare in Havana alongside her husband Regis Debray, the author of “Revolution in the Revolution”, she was active in Bolivia during “Che” Guevara’s fatal efforts to ignite a revolution there. Her personal archives can be consulted in the Hoover Archives, Stanford University.]

Se trata de un valioso aporte al estudio del controvertido tema del conflicto armado que sufrió Nicaragua tras la toma del poder por los sandinistas, y que dio término al proyecto revolucionario intentado por el FSLN tras la caída de Somoza. Ambas obras tratan, específicamente, del lapso de casi veinte años de enfrentamientos armados que vivió ese país durante los años 1979-1996 conocido por el apelativo peyorativo acuñado por el campo adverso, la Guerra de la “Contra”, cuyo nombre real fue: Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense (FDN).

La guerra tuvo dos fases: La primera fue la guerra contra la dictadura de Somoza llevada a cabo por un frente que aglutinaba diferentes fuerzas políticas y sectores de la sociedad, burguesía e izquierda radical marxista, que, tras haber derrotado a la dictadura, permitió en 1979 la llegada al poder del Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN). La segunda, es una guerra dentro de la guerra, pues comienza antes del término de la primera, y es precisamente la que el autor analiza acuciosamente en sus dos estudios, desde la perspectiva de la etnohistoria.

Es necesario apuntar, ante todo, que a su talante de investigador riguroso, T. Brown cuenta con la gran ventaja de una amplia experiencia de vida y profesional en el universo latinoamericano. Primero en su temprana juventud como Marine destinado al servicio exterior en las embajada americanas de la región, luego como diplomático, ejerció en varios países del continente. Entre sus responsabilidades, precisamente, se desempeñó de 1987 a 1990 como Senior Liaison Officer, (SLO) - responsable de las relaciones con el Movimiento de la Resistencia Democrática Nicaragüense, la “Contra” en la Embajada de Estados Unidos en Honduras, en donde el gobierno americano había establecido la base de apoyo a las fuerzas de oposición antisandinistas. La cercanía operativa con los hechos, constituye un valor agregado a su tarea de historiador, pues es a la vez participe de la historia. Una mirada privilegiada que, ante todo, le permite saltarse el maniqueísmo que tanto influye en las versiones que suelen forjarse de las guerras, en particular de ésta, que en la época de los hechos, fue objeto de enconados debates ideológicos. Pero sin disimular tampoco, que “este trabajo fue una labor de amor” hacia la región centro-americana a la que profesa un afecto profundo, como lo indica en su prólogo.

Sin dejarse atrapar en las redes de la ideología, ni de un lado ni del otro, evitando el escollo de incurrir en perspectivas valorativas, procede desechando el discurso acuñado bajo el sello de verdades admitidas, tanto del lado norte-americano, como del lado de los sandinistas. Su relación personal con los combatientes comprometidos en esa lucha, lo indujo a orientar su investigación al estudio biográfico, apoyándose en historias de vida para tratar de determinar : quiénes eran; cuál era su procedencia; cuál era su origen étnico-cultural; qué razones indujeron a la guerra esas masas campesinas afincadas en las zonas selváticas de las montañas de Nicaragua. Dispuso también de fuentes documentales de primea mano, que le permitieron corroborar cuidadosamente el contenido de los relatos.

El fin que persigue en ambas obras, es demostrar cuán errada es la Leyenda Negra adjudicada a la “Contra” , pues contrariamente a la versión establecida, la “Contra” no se originó como un proyecto de antiguos guardias nacionales de Somoza, organizados y armados por el gobierno de Reagan, para derrocar a los sandinistas: la alianza con sectores de la Guardia Nacional y la ayuda norteamericana tuvo lugar, cierto, pero cuando ya estaba en marcha, en las zonas montañosas, la insurgencia armada contra el gobierno sandinista. La configuración de los hechos tiene una complejidad que exigió incursionar en la historia de varios siglos para comprender las razones que condujeron a una masa campesina a tomar las armas armas contra un gobierno, supuestamente, llamado a ejercer la justicia tan esperada desde la época de la colonia por esas mismas masas campesinas. T. Brown encuentra la respuesta en el entramado étnico-cultural y en la naturaleza de las relaciones de clases derivadas del monopolio del poder detentado por las elites, de las cuales, pese a su postura revolucionaria, la dirigencia sandinista también formaba parte.

When the AK-47s Fall Silent es el fruto de un encuentro realizado en Puebla, bajo el auspicio de la Universidad de las Américas (UDLA) y constituye una ilustración de lo que deseara un investigador fuese el momento cumbre de su trabajo. La gran originalidad de esta obra estriba en la iniciativa de haber puesto frente a frente, en un mismo panel, a veteranos de una guerra en la que se habían enfrentado en trincheras opuestas. Así fue como antiguos miembros del Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), del Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberación Nacional (FMLN) de El Salvador, que colaboraron con los primeros; y los del bando contrario: veteranos de la “Contra” , Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense (FDN) y representantes de la organización de resistencia de los Miskitos (YATAMA), intercambiaron las experiencia durante esos años de guerras. Lo más notable, es que al segundo día de debates, representantes de ambos lados, llegaron a la conclusión de que no entendían las razones que los llevaron enfrentarse, pues a esa altura, ya todos compartían la misma decepción hacia el régimen sandinista. Sin embargo el autor establece rasgos diferenciales que separan tanto a los actores, como a las motivaciones que los indujeron a la guerra y este será el tema principal de la investigación.

La obra consta de tres partes. La primera parte trata de la elite revolucionaria radical, producto de un proceso intelectual que comparte el sentido vanguardista del marxismo clásico y que adjudica el fracaso del sandinismo, a la desaparición de la primigenia dirección sandinista, - reemplazada por la que impuso Cuba – que ellos consideraban como la legítima “vanguardia” que hubiera llevado a cabo el verdadero proceso de cambios prometido. Se trataba de todas formas de una noción que le daba la iniciativa a la decisión deliberada de una minoría con el objeto de construir un nuevo status quo basado en principios ideológicos, léase marxistas. Según el autor, y es lo que intenta demostrar, el fracaso del proyecto sandinista, radica, precisamente, en haber sentado su modelo de poder en el tradicional modelo de las elites, aunado al modelo autocrático de los regimenes marxistas: el choque con las estructuras sociales tradicionales no tardó en manifestarse.

La segunda parte, trata de los antiguos sandinistas, convertidos en “contra” que en contraste rotundo con los primeros, sus combatientes provienen del campesinado, y, pese a esgrimir quejas similares contra el poder sandinista, éstas se expresan en términos de reivindicación identitaria y de sobrevivencia. Para los campesinos y Meskitos, se trataba de una lucha para impedir se les impusiera un “nuevo estatus” hacia peligrar “el sistema tradicional, las estructuras sociales, y sus valores identitarios” y terminaría, por ende, acabando con el sentido de libertad que ellos comparten. Para resumir: entre la idea de “liberación nacional” que animaba a la dirigencia sandinistas, ellos optaron por la idea simple de libertad.

Los elementos externos constituye la segunda dimensión del complejo panorama del problema que aparecen también como punto nodal de los relatos. Primeramente, la mayoría de los entrevistados son combatientes pero ante todo son “expertos” que se desplazan a través de las fronteras. Tal vez por primera vez, aparece narrado el entramado de los lazos orgánicos, que remonta a los años 1920, que relaciona las diferentes organizaciones revolucionarias de la región. Es notable en este sentido, el papel prominente jugado desde entonces por México como base de apoyo de los movimientos revolucionarios. Mencionan que hasta hubo presencia de oficiales y soldados del ejercito mexicano en los rangos del ejercito bajo el mando de Sandino (1928-1933) que incluso algunos murieron en combate. El apoyo al proyecto revolucionario de Fidel Castro por las autoridades mexicanas, el apoyo mutuo entre el FMLN de El Salvador y el FSLN de Nicaragua, el apoyo cubano a todos los movimientos revolucionarios de América central, y su vertiente soviética, son algunos de los datos de primera mano que proporcionan los relatos.

Todos los participantes en el encuentro de Puebla compartieron la misma idea en cuanto al provecho propio que, tanto la URSS como de Estados Unidos, sacaron de la crisis. Tanto los revolucionarios radicales, como los veteranos de la lucha por la democracia, coincidieron en que Estados Unidos explotó la crisis para hacer avanzar diferentes agendas políticas en la región, tanto de izquierda como de derechas. También se incorporó un dato que merece profundizarse, opuesta a la idea establecida, que no fue de Reagan la iniciativa de ayuda a la oposición antisandinista, sino que fue Carter el verdadero instigador. Así vemos desfilar las historias de esas vidas azarosas dedicadas a guerras y conspiraciones, cargadas de momentos intensos, desplazándose a través de fronteras tan permeables, que las guerras de una país se organizan en las fronteras del vecino. Trasiego permanente de hombres y de armas, de encuentros y desencuentros, de guerras y de conspiraciones. De vivencia tan interiorizada que la guerra llegó a ser para ellos, un modo de vivir: de allí que esas voces nos procuren una visión que nos acerca de la vivencia cotidiana y de las sensibilidades interpeladas en el seno de un conflicto de guerra civil. La obra cuenta además con un prólogo de Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas: gesto que ilustra el propósito del autor de convocar la historia mediante las fuentes de la memoria. ¿Qué mejor manera de recordar la memoria del general Lázaro Cárdenas que prestó una ayuda decisiva a Augusto César Sandino cuando éste acudió a México en búsqueda de apoyo, en los ya remotos años 1920, que solicitándole al hijo representarlo en una obra que contempla un capítulo poco conocido de la historia de México?

En la galería de retratos que conforma este capítulo, el más apasionante por su espesor histórico, es el de un personaje particularmente entrañable: el mexicano José Ovidio “Pepe” Puente. Se cuenta entre grupo de los fundadores históricos del Frente Sandinista. Su vida es un ejemplo vivo de la idea de solidaridad que animó los intentos tempranos de revoluciones: esa fuerza que puede hacer surgir, casi de la nada, organizaciones revolucionarias que logran alcanzar una influencia insospechada. Su relato nos conduce a través de los meandros de las redes de apoyo a las organizaciones armadas clandestinas en Centroamérica que desde su adolescencia, siguiendo el ejemplo de su padre, obrero petrolero, les prestó apoyo: primero a Sandino cuando, aun desconocido, llegó a México en búsqueda de ayuda. Luego al grupo de Fidel Castro, cuando preparaba el desembarco del Granma y así sucesivamente, a todos los movimientos que elegían como base a México o Costa Rica. Para mayor prueba de su compromiso con la causa, el nombre que le dio a sus hijos, que vale la pena citar, pues es difícil imaginar llevar semejante carga: Eva Fidelia, Lenin, Illia, Sandino Stalin, Engels Marx, y el menor, Stokely Mao. El comportamiento autócrata de la nueva dirección Sandinista impuesta por Cuba, integrada por los “Nueve Comandantes”, fue una de las causas de la factura en el seno del sandinismo, al extremo de convertir a este irreductible del “marxismo-leninismo” en “contra”.

Un dato que merece se resalte, es la reproducción de documentos originales: cartas, documentos de identidad etc., que ponen de manifiesto las relaciones que mantenían estos grupos con los servicios de inteligencia de los países del campo socialista, incluso con la China; el papel hegemónico de Cuba, y las decisiones y compromisos que éstas relaciones inducían, es otro de los aspectos que los testimonios contribuyen a aclarar. Prueba de ello, el caso dramático de Alejandro Martínez Sáenz: de origen burgués, de familia conservadora dedicó gran parte de su vida a la lucha contra Somoza; su caso ilustra las complejas relaciones de los movimientos revolucionarios con la Cuba socialista. Al oponerse ante la dirigencia cubana, - a quien había acudido en búsqueda de solidaridad en 1959 -, a que se le diera al general Sandino el calificativo de comunista puesto que al contrario, había sido un resuelto anti-comunista, sufrió toda clase de vejaciones: cuatro años de cárcel, torturas, y hasta un simulacro de fusilamiento. Logró salir de Cuba solamente en 1972 se sumó al Frente Sandinista para proseguir su lucha contra Somoza. Como era de esperarse, cuando los Sandinistas optaron por la línea cubana, consideró que no lo queda otra alternativa que sumarse a la “contra”, y así lo hizo.

La segunda parte, “Guerrillas”, trata del protagonismo de los campesino de las zonas selváticas montañosas que se alzaron contra los sandinistas después de haber combatido junto a ellos contra Somoza. La biografía de Encarnación Valdivia Chavarria, Comandante Tigrillo, combina las fluctuaciones de los paradigmas de la crisis que surge del talante de los Sandinistas para gobernar, que en gran medida es reveladores de la estructura social de Nicaragua en donde impera el poder jerárquico de las elites, a lo que se debe agregar la influencia exterior de las grandes potencias y sus intereses geopolíticos. Juguete de las fuerzas que movían los hilos del conflicto campesino, adhiere a la guerrilla anti-Somoza, gana un grado militar en el sandinismo, pero no soporta los maltratos y la arrogancia de la nueva elite en el poder, toma rápidamente de nuevo las armas, (1980) organiza una de las primeras guerrillas campesinas anti-sandinistas : las Milicias Populares Antisandinistas (MILPAS). Ya con su grupo organizado, fue el primero en establecer contacto y entablar una alianza con miembros de la antigua Guardia Nacional de Somoza, (1981) con el objeto de obtener entrenamiento y ayuda militar de parte de Estados Unidos.

Un caso ejemplar es el de Don Alejandro Pérez Bustamante, campesino, guardaespaldas personal del legendario Augusto César Sandino. Don Alejandro no duda en declarar, que “si Sandino estuviese vivo sería también “contra”, pues era un hombre “honorable, muy creyente y que jamás se hubiera comportado mal con los campesinos ni hubiese invitado a extranjeros a venir a las montañas y dirigir el país como hicieron los sandinistas con los cubanos. “

The Real Contra War, es la otra faz de la misma medalla, y el intento formal, la vertiente histórica-académica del estudio, mediante el cual el autor busca la explicación a la que aparece a primera vista una interrogante simple: ¿Quiénes y qué eran los “Contras”: cuándo dónde y por qué comenzaron la guerra ? Los combatientes de la “Contra” eran en su mayoría campesinos que se alzaron contra el poder de los sandinistas. Campesinos pobres afincados en las montañas selváticas del país, cuyos líderes habían combatido antes, junto a los sandinistas, contra Somoza. Campesinos de origen indígena, - de hecho se consideran “indios” – viviendo en la marginalidad, con siglos de historia de luchas de resistencia en su haber. El autor se remonta al origen de estas poblaciones campesinas que representan lo contrario de ex - guardias somocistas, reclutados por la CIA, bajo las ordenes del presidente Reagan, como lo repitió durante años la versión del campo adverso: imagen que influenció, incluso a los organismos internacionales como la OEA. Cuando el presidente Reagan decide ayudar la resistencia contra el régimen de Nicaragua, ya existían comandos armados en la montaña enfrentados a los sandinistas. El primer alzamiento se operó, antes de la caída de Somoza, porque los campesinos, desde muy temprano, chocaron con los rasgos autoritarios del proyecto sandinista. La alianza con la Guardia y acudir a la ayuda norteamericana, lejos de una actitud dócil, sería la demostración de un gesto de autonomía, por parte de esos campesinos marginados durante siglos. Este hecho debería inducir a reflexionar a propósito de la emergencia de movimientos indigenistas que animados por un sentido de pertenencia étnica perciben a los Estados nacionales, surgidos de la independencia, como enemigos. No sería de extrañar que intervenga ese tipo de alianzas con fuerzas extranacionales, interesadas, precisamente, en el debilitamiento de éstos últimos.

En el excelente capítulo sobre la “Geografía de la rebelión” el autor constata que lo primero que sorprende es el perfil de los combatientes “contras”: noventa y cinco por ciento son campesinos de origen indígena oriundos de las zonas de las altas montañas, de los cuales siete por ciento mujeres. Igualmente sorprendió a los organismos internacionales, influenciados por versión oficial, el número de efectivos y colaboradores involucrados en el conflicto. Tras los acuerdos de paz, nueve mil combatientes fueron reintegrados a sus 17 comunidades, lo mismo que ochenta mil colaboradores que compartieron con ellos la lucha en los santuarios que les servían de refugio. Según cifras oficiales, mas de cien mil “contras” regresaron a sus hogares, lo que arroja el cálculo que hubo más de quinientos mil campesinos organizados por la “contra” e involucrados en la guerra. Precisamente, la desinformación creada por La Leyenda Negra, fue una de las razones para que el primer intento del proceso de paz fracasara y la guerra continuara en las montañas y durara seis años más, hasta 1996, cuando las elecciones, en las que los sandinistas perdieron el poder, tuvieron lugar en 1990. La importancia de la influencia y la visibilidad que esos campesinos ganaron en el escenario nacional, quedó de manifiesto cuando el gobierno intentó negarles la posibilidad de inscribirse en el registro electoral pues sabían que esos votos serían decisivos en el desenlace del sufragio, lo que de hecho sucedió, puesto que los sandinistas perdieron las elecciones.

Al cabo de su minuciosa encuesta, el autor constata que los comandos “contras” estaban integrados en su mayoría, por la faz velada de una franja de la población marginalizada por las elites dominantes: campesinos de origen indígena, afincados en las montañas, teatro de la lucha del general Sandino, por lo tanto descendientes de aquellos que habían luchado a su lado. Surgieron las primeras milicias, las que luego formaron la “Contra”, y se lanzaron a la lucha contra una nueva elite, la de los sandinistas convertidos en poder y productos de una alianza con la elite tradicional, a la que ellos habían dado su apoyo durante la lucha para derrocar a Somoza, y que pretendieron imponerles un régimen de organización social divorciado de su forma de vida, sus tradiciones y su sentido de la libertad. Si comenzaron su rebelión contra los sandinistas en 1979 cuando todavía Somoza no había sido derrocado y los “Milpistas” del Frente Carlos Fonseca comenzaron a rebelarse, es porque su combate, por ser antiguos pobladores del continente, se inscribe en una tradición de lucha que remonta a siglos de historia. El resultado de su guerra fue que al término de ésta, emergieron dotados de una visibilidad que jamás habían tenido, convertidos en una verdadera fuerza de influencia en la escena política nacional, al punto de que el candidato sandinista, Daniel Ortega, durante la campaña electoral, prometió que de resultar electo, nombraría como ministro de gobierno, a un antiguo Guardia “Contra”.

El resultado de esta guerra equivaldría a una verdadera revolución cuyo mérito no le toca, ni a Jimmy Carter, ni a Ronald Reagan, sino a esos miles de campesinos pobres, cuya lucha tuvo consecuencias de un alcance imprevisible: entre otras cosas, cambió el curso de la historia, pues se le debe haber impedido la consolidación de los sandinistas en el poder, evitando así la imposición de un régimen autoritario inspirado en el modelo cubano. En el plano internacional, la derrota de los sandinistas, tuvo consecuencias también en el desenlace adverso que tuvo la guerrilla guatemalteca y en el fin de la guerra en El Salvador. Los aspectos que parecen delinearse con bastante nitidez:

1 - Las circunstancias locales que concurrieron en el estallido del conflicto y en el surgimiento de la “Contra” son de origen endógeno, y no de la iniciativa de la Guardia Nacional y de la administración Reagan. Su origen se sitúa en la continuidad de la lucha de varios siglos y en la marginación de la población campesina de origen indígena, sometida al poder de las elites que se han sucedido desde la conquista.

2 - Las circunstancias internacionales consecuencia de la guerra fría que con igual o tal vez mayor fuerza contribuyeron a la exacerbación de la crisis, pues fue fría para aquellos países protegidos por el dispositivo nuclear, pero extremadamente caliente para aquellos países que les tocó ser el teatro de operaciones en donde las dos grandes potencias se hacían la guerra por países interpuestos. La URSS, disimulaba su voluntad beligerante bajo el velo de la “coexistencia pacifica”, y actuaba protegida por el camuflaje que le facilitaba su complicidad con Cuba. Estados Unidos, a su vez, la esperaba en la cuesta, protegiendo sus intereses geo- estratégicos, secundado por los ejércitos nacionales, salvo en Nicaragua en donde recurrió a la colaboración de los servicios de inteligencia argentinos.

3 – La intromisión de otros Estados en la región no es nada nuevo. Suele ocurrir incluso, que pese a situaciones beligerantes existan espacios de complicidad entre los Estados: un ejemplo de ello, las toneladas de armas que Cuba introdujo en Nicaragua destinadas a los sandinistas, a través de Costa Rica, con el acuerdo y complicidad de ese gobierno y de lo cual, según el autor, no sólo la administración Carter estaba perfectamente informada, sino que la propició, e incluso al final colaboró con envíos adicionales de armas a los Sandinistas. Como también afirma, que según un vocero del Departamento de Estado, los acuerdos de paz entre los sandinistas y la “Contra” se firmaron en Moscú. Estábamos ya en las postrimerías de la Guerra Fría, la Perestroika comenzaba a dar sus frutos, y la caída del muro de Berlín era un hecho esperado.

Ambos estudios son imprescindibles para comprender las razones y el desarrollo de un conflicto que dividió entonces la opinión pública internacional, ciega ante el conflicto local, sólo veía el escenario global en el que se dirimían posturas ideológicas relativas a los intereses de las grandes potencias, en una zona neurálgica particularmente sensible del dispositivo geo- estratégico. Dos obras que proporcionan un marco conceptual y analítico indispensable y constituyen un verdadero aporte para quienes deseen continuar profundizando este campo de investigación.

Dr. Elizabeth Burgos Debray, PhD

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