WHEN THE AK-47S FALL SILENT
REVOLUTIONARIES, GUERRILLAS AND THE DANGERS OF PEACE
(STANFORD UNIVERSITY, HOOVER INSTITUTION PRESS, 2000 - AVAILABLE ON AMAZON)
DR. TIMOTHY C. BROWN
WITH FOREWORD BY Cuauhtemoc Cardenas
Former Mayor of Mexico City; Candidate for President of Mexico, 2000
An era of bloody struggles, led by armed revolutionaries with AK-47s in hand, which once engulfed our region from the Carib¬bean Sea to the Panamanian isthmus, with Mexico right in the middle, is coming to an end, and another struggle for justice and freedom but via the ballot box, not out of the barrel of a gun, is beginning. For it to succeed, democratic dialogue must replace the din of battle. This book begins that dialogue.
Those who speak here are among those that once pulled the triggers of their AK-47s, causing the din of combat so loudly heard on the battlefields of yesterday's revolutions. Today they are participants in democracy. The essays collected here initiate an open dialogue among many who once thought of each other as mortal enemies but who, when brought together, discovered they all had been struggling for much the same thing: justice in unjust lands, freedom where there was none, prosperity where far too many were poor, democracy where dictatorship held sway.
It is entirely fitting that this dialogue on Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, bringing together as it does so many onetime enemies, began in Mexico, in the ancient city of Puebla at the heart of the ancestral lands of the Nahua and beneath the shadow of that most majestic of volcanoes, Popocatepetl, because it was from Puebla more than a thousand years ago our mutual forefa¬thers set out to settle the lands over which Central America's re¬cent conflicts were fought—Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica.
It is also especially fitting that these former foes in Central America's wars should join one another under the auspices of a North American think tank, the Hoover Institution on War, Rev¬olution and Peace, dedicated to studying just such problems as theirs as part of its renewed efforts in Latin America: to discuss why they once fought so fiercely and to try to better understand the dawning era of democracy in which each is now an active participant.
Although historically much has divided Mexico and Central America from the United States, all those whose voices are heard here believe ardently that peace is far better than war, that freedom is infinitely preferable to tyranny, and that democ¬racy is always preferable to dictatorship. Central America's wars were fought precisely because none of these blessings was truly available to the common folk. Today peace, freedom, and democ¬racy are all within our grasp. To achieve them, ancient problems must be resolved.Yesterday's conflicts were responses to real grievances, and until these grievances are resolved our goals can¬not be achieved. I also believe that the best route to achieving them is through democracy.
One need not pass judgment on the exceptionally varied ideol¬ogies of the former revolutionaries and guerrillas who partici¬pated in this study, or on the sometimes excruciatingly painful actions they took, to be heartened by having activists of such di¬verse backgrounds sit down together to discuss not just their pasts but also their futures. It is especially heartening that they did so in the presence and with the support of international peacemakers dedicated to facilitating their dialogue.
Those that speak here, speak of lives lived over an immense range. Those lives reflect personal commitments and experiences covering the entire twenti¬eth century, all of America from the United States to Panama, and each of its liberation struggles. They range from the voice of a second-generation Mexican revolutionary, and second-generation friend, whose family roots run deep from within both the Mexi¬can Revolution and Augusto Cesar Sandino's anti-imperialist war to the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua to a simple Nicaraguan mountain peasant whose life story spans the same century and many of the same events but from a vastly different perspective. Yet both voices ring true.
It is also not necessary either to endorse or to criticize any of those that speak here to recommend strongly that one listen to these voices. Each has much to say of great value to anyone trying to understand why our region slid into the abyss of war and is now dedicated to helping it through its painful transition from war to peace. They all speak of how the problems of closed sys¬tems and unfair distributions of income and power pushed them over the abyss and into armed struggles, and all warn that we must henceforth heed the will of the masses and respond to those who have been marginalized for too long, lest this sad and violent story repeat itself.
Of special interest are three essays included here. One is by a woman, a female combatant, a commando of the Nicaraguan Contras who speaks not just for herself but as a voice from among one of our traditionally most marginalized groups, women. Re¬gardless of what one thinks of her cause, her story is an inspira¬tion because it says so much about the ability and willingness of women to play key roles alongside men in efforts to change their worlds. A second is by a Miskito Indian. Again, and regardless of how one views his cause, his story is both a warning and an inspiration, a warning that in the modern democratic world the too long marginalized Indians of the Americas—and here Mexico need take special note—must henceforth be heard but that, if heeded, they can become responsible players on the national scene. The third is actually a set of several essays by simple peas¬ants who fought on all sides of the region's conflicts. Their strug¬gles say to everyone, whether left or right, rich or poor, urban or rural, "We the peasants can no longer be ignored. We, too, must be heard." Together, these essays constitute a clear warning that unless ways are found to include such groups—women, Indians, peasants, and any others who have too long been excluded—our dreams of a peaceful, free, and democratic future may well remain just that, dreams. To realize them, the too long marginalized must henceforth be included.
Finally, and of very special note, is a final set of essays by international peacemakers. One, a United Nations General, warns us that peace is more than the mere absence of war. It is not enough for those once at war to lay down their AK-47s and be disarmed. They must also be brought into the new democratic world as full participants. A second, by a former American Am¬bassador to Colombia, forewarns that unless this is done and done well, war can take on a life of its own. Finally, and optimisti¬cally, an Organization of American States peacemaker relates a tale of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, of how he learned to help build peace where once there was only war not from learned scholars or public servants in faraway places, but by fi¬nally learning to listen to the simple peasants and workers, the Indians and women, in short the common folk who are the real victims of the violence inherent in armed conflicts. By reversing the traditional approach, he discovered that the people really do know best.
For me, perhaps the most important lesson to draw from this study is encapsulated in the title of one of its essays, by the former military commander of El Salvador's Faribundo Marti Liberation Front: "The Very Best Strategy Is to Avoid War." The second is that this is best accomplished through open and free dialogue among all segments of a society and that this is best done from within a free and democratic system. The final lesson is that with peace and prosperity the ultimate prizes, we should all become peacemakers, not war-makers. The Hoover Institution and the edi¬tor, Timothy C. Brown, are commended for initiating this dia¬logue; what they have produced is commended to the reading of all those committed to peace with justice. May this be just the beginning.
Mexico City, Mexico, November 28, 1999
!Hijo de Puta! (son of a bitch!) - Why Did We Ever Fight?
It was not your typical academic panel. True, the setting was de¬lightful, the warmly decorated main auditorium of Mexico's most elite private university. But the host, the Universidad de Las Ameri¬cas (UDLA) in Puebla, Mexico, had felt called on quietly to beef up security, so there were additional police waiting in the wings, just in case. Many in the audience were visibly nervous, asking one another if it was safe to be there. Even the panelists I had brought together were worried lest violence break out, and several asked me as organizer and moderator, only half-jokingly, if I was sure their fellow panelists had left their AK-47s at home. The event was the first ever face-to-face encounter between former radical revolutionaries and Nicaraguan Contra guerrillas, the military leaders of Nicaragua's original Sandinista National Libera¬tion Front (FSLN), El Salvador's Faribundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Mexican revolutionaries who had sup¬ported them, and equally prominent though less well-known com¬manders of two of Nicaragua's democratic Resistance Contra ar¬mies, the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (FDN) and the YATAMA, a Miskito Indian army.
Their fears were perhaps understandable because all the panelists were veterans of very violent conflicts and, until just recently, had been mortal enemies fighting on opposite sides of exceedingly bloody wars. But they need not have worried. Immediately after the first two sessions, three former top Contras, Comandantes Ruben and Tigrillo of the Contra’s main army, the FDN, and Blass, of the Miskito Indian Resistance, rushed up to me to say, "Hijo de puta” (son of a bitch!). We were really worried when you invited us because we thought you were dropping us into a nest of Sandinis¬tas. But they're more Contras than we are!” They wanted to talk longer, but reporters from the international and Mexican press were swarming around us, and all three were quickly drawn away for interviews.
The moment the former Contras went off to talk with journal¬ists, the other panelists, all Marxists: Ferman Cienfuegos of El Salva¬dor's FMLN, Comandantes Martial and Martinez, and "Pepe" Puente, a second-generation Mexican revolu¬tionary of the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN). Cienfuegos summed up their reaction, "Hijo de puta! (son-of-a-bitch!), why did we ever fight one another? They think just like we do. If we had known who they really were, there never would have been any wars!"
Both reactions, while no doubt a bit tinted by the emotions of the moment, were essentially accurate. Whether revolu¬tionary or guerrilla, all the panelists had in common deep commit¬ments to the well-being of their countrymen, a willingness to put their lives on the line in support of their convictions, and hard-earned convictions that Central America's wars were both unnecessary and unnecessarily bloody. All still remain com¬mitted to the struggle to resolve their region's myriad problems, but they were now dedicated to doing to do so via the ballot box, not out of the barrels of their AK-47s.
Ak47s is divided into three parts in which each of the participants speaks for him or herself only. Part I consists of five essays or autobiographical commentaries by former revolutionaries whose personal experiences span Cen¬tral America's 20th Century wars, from the rebellion of Sandino in the 1920s to the resolution of the war in El Salvador in the mid-1990s. Part II presents commentaries by four guerrillas of the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance, better known outside their own ranks as Contras, including one who was a Sandinista before he became a Contra, a female comando (as Contra combatants called themselves), an indigenous Miskito Indian com¬mander, and the last Chief of Staff of the main Contra army. Part III features three international public servants who have dedicated much their lives to trying to resolve conflicts - an American Ambassador, a Cana¬dian General with the United Nations and a peacemaker from the Organization of American States (OAS).
Three of those included in the book were not actually panelists at Puebla - one because he was over ninety years old and frail, one because the U.S. Immigration Service re¬fused to issue her a timely travel document and one because he was not yet ready to go public. But their comments are at least as valuable as those by panelists who did appear.
Part I – Revolutionaries, begins with Chapter 2, the remarkable story of a radical Mexican revolutionary, Jose Obidio "Pepe" Puente Leon, is told here in detail for the first time. He and his family have for generations played key, if almost en¬tirely unknown, roles in half a dozen revolutionary movements, from Nicaragua's original Sandino uprising and Fidel Castro's march to the Sierra Maestra of Cuba to more recent armed con¬flicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Puente's essay begins the book because he is a living organic link between the Mexican Revolution, the original Sandino's resis¬tance to the American Marines, Castro's Cuban Revolution, Cuban and Soviet involvement in Latin America's revolutions during the cold war, both the 1963-1979 anti-Somoza Sandinista uprising and the 1979-1990 Sandinista socialist revolution, and unsuccessful radical attempts at revolutions in El Salvador, Hon¬duras, and Guatemala. Don Alejandro Perez Bustamante, whose story is told in Chapter 3, was the personal bodyguard to legendary Nicaraguan General Augusto Cesar Sandino; it was to him that the namesake of Nicaragua's revolutionary movement en¬trusted his very life. Decades later, he was a Resistance (Contra) correo, or clandestine network chief, to whom hundreds of Nica-raguan Contra comandos entrusted their lives.
Chapters 4 through 6 are by top radical guerrilla leaders. Alej¬andro Martinez Martinez (Chapter 4) was a conservative anti-Somoza combatant in the 1940s, fought in numerous guerrilla campaigns, became a senior field commander for the Sandinistas, was pushed aside when he objected to the post-Somoza socialist revolution, later became an anti-Sandinista commander and was, incongruously, the first choice of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1980 to head up the Contra move¬ment. The author of Chapter 5, Plutarco Hernandez Sancho Comandante Marcial, was a lifelong revolutionary, a Na¬tional Director of the Sandinista Front for more than a decade, and a principal architect of that Front's clandestine training, recruitment, and communications systems inside Nicaragua dur¬ing the war against Somoza. But he too turned against the Sandin¬ista Revolution after 1979. By 1998, he was Costa Rica's Ambassa¬dor to Russia and Dean of the Latin American Diplomatic Corps in Moscow. Ferman Cienfuegos, the author of Chapter 6, was the military commander of El Salvador's radical FMLN move¬ment for two decades. Cienfuegos and Hernandez are, interestingly, first cousin.
Part II – Guerrillas, begins with Chapter 7, the story of a legendary peasant guerrilla leader, Encarnacion Baldivia, Tigrillo, who was at first an anti-Somoza combat leader, then became a founding leader of Nicaragua’s first anti-Sandinista guerrilla movement, the peasant-generated Milicias Populares Anti-Sandinistas (MILPAS) that were the precursors of the Contras. In 1998 he was a Liberal Party peasant leader. He is followed in Chapter 8 the story of a second founding leader of the MILPAS, Oscar Sobalvarro Garcia, Ruben, who went on to be¬come the last Chief of Staff of the main Contra army, the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (FDN) and President of their postwar veterans' organization, the ACRN (Asociacion Civica Resistencia Nicaraguense). The final two chapters in Part II - Guerrillas are the story of, Saris Perez, Angelica Maria, a woman comando and ranger, told in Chapter 9, and that of Salomon Osorno Coleman, Comandante Blass, the Chief of Staff of the Miskito Indian Resistance's YATAMA army, told in Chapter 10. When added together, the nine former combatants whose thoughts are collected here have almost 250 years' experi¬ence at revolution and guerrilla warfare.
Part III – Peacemakers, three chapters by professional peace-makers, draw lessons from a number of insurgencies, including the wars the first nine fought. In Chapter 11, United States Ambassador Myles Frechette, describes the ongoing and exceedingly bloody revolu¬tionary conflicts in that country. At first blush his contribution may seem out of place. But readers are asked to keep it clearly in mind when reading the next two because the purpose here is not merely to describe what happened in the past but to suggest how we can do better in the future. His essay is followed in Chapter 12 by the contribution of Canadian Major General Ian Douglas, the original commander of the U.N. International (military) Observer Force in Central America (ONUCA), who discusses the process of disarming a guerrilla force, the lessons learned by the U.N. in Central America, and why he believes ONUCA failed in its larger mission. Al¬though disarmament was technically successful, Douglas has since become convinced that it is only the first step in a much more complex process and that in the larger sense his mission failed because the U.N., which depended on public discourse rather than dispassionate analysis for its information, was badly misled as to the real identity of those with whom it dealt and the roots of the conflict they were supposed to help end. In terms of broad implications, the contribution in Chapter 13 by Dr. Ser¬gio Caramagna, the representative of the Secretary General of the OAS in Nicaragua, is of exceptional interest. In it he discusses the failures and successes of the OAS’ efforts to reinsert former Contra guerrillas and their families back into Nicaraguan civil society and is the product of nine years' hands-on experience trying to bring peace to Nicaragua's coun¬tryside well after the Contras laid down their AK-47s. As did Gen¬eral Douglas, Caramagna found that his mission initially failed because its design was based on wartime propaganda im¬ages that did not reflect reality. But, unlike the UN, the OAS stayed long enough to correct its mistakes. Chapter 14, is my own contribution to this study, based on experiences in Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia as a Marine; in Israel, wartime Vietnam, the Netherlands, the French Caribbean and Central America as a diplomat; and as a scholar of organized armed political violence, especially in Mexico, Paraguay, El Salvador, Cuba, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Chapter 2 - The Road from Sandino to Sandinismo, and Back
José Obidio "Pepe" Puente, The Living Link
Biographical note: In 1954, "Pepe" Puente’s father introduced him to the first real leader of Nicaragua's Sandinista revolutionary movement, Noel Guerrero Santiago, and to Fidel and Raul Castro and "Che" Guevara. Puente became a key link between Cuban and Soviet intelligence and the Sandinista movement. Close to the original 1961-1979 leadership of the Sandinista movement, he distanced himself from the Nine Comandantes who took control of the movement after its July 1979 triumph. In 1998 he was an aide to Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, son of former President of Mexico Lazaro Cárdenas. Here, for the first time, Puente breaks his lifelong silence and speaks publicly about his journey from radical revolutionary to participant in the democratic process.
José Obidio "Pepe" Puente
"---- All my revolutionary life I was a Marxist-Leninist, and acted accordingly. But since my participation in violent revolutions I had begun analyzing my experiences, especially my mistakes, and now realize that when I was young I was too carried away by the occurrence of the historical moment.
Mexico City, 2008 – Ing. Jose “Pepe” Puente. For two decades, Puente was a key Mexico City link between Soviet and Cuban intelligence and several Central American revolutionary movements (author’s collection).
---- The names of my children demonstrate how dedicated I was to world revolution, and even the house I live in has a profound revolutionary history because for many years it was the principle Sandinista safe house in Mexico City. All six of my children are named after my revolutionary heroes. My first child, Eva Fidelia, after Fidel Castro because she was born when I still admired him; my second, Lenin Obidio, after Vladimir Lenin, the original leader of the Soviet revolution; my third child, Illia, s named after Lenin's father; my fourth, Sandino Stalin, after my two favorite revolutionaries; my fifth, Engels Marx, after my two favorite Marxist philosophers; and my sixth, Stokely Mao, received that name while I was flirting with Maoism and also was a great admirer of the American black power movement and its leader Stokely Carmichael.
----A full wall mural in my living room depicts these and my other heroes. At the top center is a medallion of Marx and Engels. Below them stand Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Sandino, Fidel Castro and "Che" Guevara. Stokely Carmichael is in and Africa-shaped tree above Sandino. Nicaragua and Bolivia, which have active revolutionary movements when it was painted, are highlighted on the map, as is the United States, which is exploding”.
Mexico City, 2008 – A panel of the Revolutionary mural that adorns his home’s living room. Both photos were taken by the author (author’s collection).
Mexico City, 2000 - Noel Guerrero Santiago, the high level revolutionary agent (and possibly a senior COMINTERN agent) that taught Puente and “Che” Guevara guerrilla warfare tactics. Once jailed in Mexico City on immigration charges, he was considered by both the Secretary General of Mexico’s Communist Party, Vicente Lombardo Toledano, and former President, Lazaro Cardenas to be exceptionally important. Fidel and Raul Castro, were also being held in the same jail but, at the time, were of minimal interest to them. After the triumph of Castro’s revolution, Guerrero was to be “Che” Guevara’s top advisor on the fomenting of revolutions elsewhere as well. Guerrero, who was the first leader of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Front, later taught Puente and Carlos Fonseca Amador guerrilla warfare tactic (author’s collection).
Mexico City, 2008 - During one of the author’s visits to Mexico City, Puente took him on a tour of “revolutionary” sites. Here they are standing in front of the entrance to the apartment in which Puente lived while assisting Noel Guerrero. At the time, Fidel Castro, “Che” Guevara and 26th of July group were also being held just next door in what was then a Mexican immigration service detention facility (author’s collection).
Mexico City, 2008 – The tour included a visit to the Café La Habana, Fidel Castro’s favorite Mexico City bistro (author’s collection).
Mexico City, 2008 – Here I’m with Puente visiting Miguel Arroche Parra, Secretary General of the Guerrero (Mexico) State’s Communist Party. Note the flattering drawing of Josef Stalin behind Arroche. Some of Arroche’s personal archival collection, now housed in the Hoover Archives, Stanford University, lines the walls behind him (author’s collection).
Alejandro Perez Bustamante, Sandino's Bodyguard
During the Constitutional war in Nicaragua, "Don Alejandro" Bustamante was a personal bodyguard to legendary Nicaraguan guerrilla General Augusto Cesar Sandino. He also served as an occasional civilian operative during Sandino's later war against the United States Marines. At first glance Don Alejandro…seems a rather ordinary albeit somewhat aged an unusually sturdy peasant farmer. But he is anything but ordinary. Early on after their  victory the Sandinistas tried to pressure him into supporting them. When he resisted, they retaliated by firing mortars at his home, killing his wife. Pushed by this into active opposition, Don Alejandro soon became the chief of his region’s clandestine anti-Sandinista support networks and one of the Contra resistances most effective and influential civilian activists.
Alejandro Perez Bustamante
"After I got home, Sandinista soldiers from their base in Quilali fired mortars at my house. They hit my house and killed my wife of 30 years. I still have the shell casing from one of their mortar bombs that didn't explode well (points to it). I had never believed in them [the Sandinistas] but, until then hadn't been prepared to fight against them despite what they were doing. But after that I became a supporter of the chilotes [the earliest name for the Contra].----General Sandino was my hero, and I remember him as an honorable and very gentle man who was careful with the peasants and who was fighting for Nicaragua. He was very religious and Catholic, and certainly not a Communist. I remember when he ran the Communists out of his army."
"If Sandino had been alive during the Sandinista revolution, he would have been a Contra himself."
On the left - Ocotal, Segovias, Nicaragua, circa 1930 – General Augusto Cesar Sandino, center, poses with two of his staff officers on right and two unidendified persons on his left. On the right - Washington, DC, 1939 - Anastacio “Tacho” Somoza Garcia, is standing next to President Roosevelt during his state visit visit to Washington. Eleanor Roosevelt, upper left behind Somoza, is standing next to Salvadora Somoza (photos courtesy Marine Corps Museum).
Contrary to conventional wisdom, many Latin American revolutionaries have been moderates, or even conservatives. From a Nicaraguan conservative family, Comandante Martinez became an anti- Somoza activist alongside his father and, when his father was forced by the Somoza regime to flee into exile in Costa Rica in the 1940s. But, even though he soon acquired Costa Rican citizenship, he never abandon his Nicaraguan roots. In 1944, while still just a teenager, he engaged in limited anti-Somoza guerrilla actions and, in 1948, was a member of the revolutionary forces that put José “Pepe” Figueras in Costa Rica's Presidential Palace. In 1956 he joined a small anti-Somoza guerrilla force led by a former Sandino General, Ramon Raudales, operating in Nicaragua’s Segovian mountains and was with the General when he was killed in combat. After Raudales’ death, Martinez remained inside Nicaragua for another year as a member of a small remnant of Raudales’ guerrilla.
At the time, Fidel Castro’s forces were active in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. Fifteen days after they triumphed on January 1, 1959, his comrades sent him to Cuba to ask Castro for help. Instead, once in Cuba he fell under a political cloud, incarcerated in La Cabana Fortress and condemned to be executed. While in La Cabana, he subjected to several mock executions by firing squad. But before his sentence could actually be carried out, his sentence was commuted. Released, but restricted in his movements, he was not allowed to leave Cuba until 1972. Despite this, he remained committed to the fight against the Somoza regime and soon rejoined the efforts to overthrow that regime. Given his experience and commitment, he soon became a senior Sandinista field commander. When, after the fall of Somoza in July of 1979, the Nine Comandantes took power, he broke with them and returned to Costa Rica only to have them send an assassination squad after him.
According to Martinez, in late 1980, towards the end of the Carter presidency, he was approached by Argentine and American CIA agents and agreed to travel to Washington, DC at their behest, where they tried to recruit him to head up a new anti-Sandinista guerrilla force that later became known as the Contras. But the force they described consisted almost exclusively of former Somoza Guardia officers, soldiers of the Somoza regime against which he’d been fighting for more than thirty years and he concluded that he would be its figurehead not commander. So he declined. While initially it seemed an implausible story, visas, immigration stamps and notations on three pages of his Costa Rican passport (reproduced in When the AK-47s Fall Silent, pages 282-283) confirm that he did, in fact, travel to Washington DC.
“… It was during my year in the Segovia Mountains after Raudales Was killed but I learned several important lessons, including the absolute need to have networks among the peasants. There were never more than about 25 or 30 of us, most the sons of men that had been with Sandino, and we were entirely dependent on their peasant families.once, when we came into a small settlement all the women were crying and I discovered they were terrified the army would take reprisals because we had been there. They taught me the high price revolutions can extract, even from those not fight. I also learned the value of timely intelligence information."
"By late 1979 I was again involved in armed raids against the Sandinistas from Costa Rica, working in small groups. A year later, in December 1980, the CIA contacted me [note: a US immigration stamp on page 17 of his Costa Rican document confirms that he entered the United States on January 15, 1981] Two Americans and an Argentine military officer came to see me in San Jose. The Argentine said he was from Army intelligence. The Americans said the United States wanted me to take command of the new anti-Sandinista movement and invited me to Washington, D.C., to meet with other officials. They said the United States had decided to provide paramilitary support to some anti-Sandinista Nicaragua's, and I was their first choice as leader because I was a nationalist and anti-Marxist but not a Somocista and had both a clean record and military experience."
"I went almost immediately to Washington DC as a guest of the American government and I remember it was 25° when I arrived and I was freezing. One of the American officers met me when I arrived, accompanied by a young lady whose name I don't remember. They put me up in L'Enfant Plaza Hotel and would come by to take me to a safe house, a private home in Georgetown, for meetings. I met with officers from the Department of State, the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House, eight or ten Americans altogether."
Plutarco Hernandez Sancho, Comandante Marcial
Plutarco Hernandez Sancho was born in San José, Costa Rica and grew up in its Barrio Santa Lucia, a middle class neighborhood in central San José, where his and Dr. Brown’s wife’s family were close neighbors, although Plutarco’s parents were active leftist revolutionaries while they were not. As he was growing up, Plutarco’s family played important roles in several radical movements and he was to follow in their footsteps. The author first met Plutarco in 1958 at his wedding reception in San José. But, at the time, Plutarco was just 14 years old andpaid him little attention other than to notice that he kept making goo eyes at the author’s bride. As a high school student, Plutarco founded Costa Rica's Socialist Youth Movement and, after being talent spotted by a KGB recruiter, was invited to the 1963 World Youth Festival in Havana where he met Fidel Castro for the first time, and soon thereafter received a scholarship to Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. From Moscow he went to Cuba, where he spent a year in specialized guerrilla leader leadership training at Campamento Cerro east of Havana. An outstanding student, he then went to North Korea for another six months advanced training under the personal supervision of Kim Il. He then secretly entered Nicaragua where, under the pseudonym of Comandante Marcial, he served for fourteen years as a National Director of the Sandinista Front as head of its clandestine recruiting and training efforts. Mauel Jiron’s Quien es Quien en Nicaragua (Who's Who in Nicaragua, San José, Costa Rica, Editorial Radio Amor, 1986) dedicates six pages to Plutarco’s biography, more than it dedicates to President Daniel Ortega and General Humberto Ortega combined.
"In Nicaragua, Mexico's top Communist, Vicente Lombardo Toledano, took a hand in local events. On May 1, 1944, May Day, Labor Day in most of the world, Lombardo Toledano publicly joined hands in Managua with then dictator of Nicaragua, Anastasio "Tacho" Somoza Garcia, to found the Socialist (Communist) party of Nicaragua. This may have been one of the most ironic events in the history of our region because this was the same Somoza who, ten years earlier, had assassinated Nicaragua's great revolutionary and patriotic, General Augusto Cesar Sandino.”
“The triumph of the Cuban revolution greatly increased the intensity of confrontations between diverse forces in the region and caused a resurgence in national liberation movements throughout Latin America; many already existing guerrilla movements were greatly strengthened.”
“At the very end of our struggle against Somoza, beginning on July 19, 1979, the day the Sandinista Front triumphed, and entirely different process began.” “The example of the Sandinista revolution may be one of the best illustrations of the classic aphorism "absolute power corrupts absolutely.
"It was the corruption of the Sandinistas themselves as much as their revolutionary policies that destroyed the process. Thus Sandinista Nine, once in power, became a sort of committee of nine factotums who tried to watch everything and everyone every minute and to make all decisions, both large and small.... Put another way, what the Sandinistas established was a peculiar version of a late in the day tropical Stalinism with overtones of folklore."
José Eduardo Sancho - Comandante Ferman Cienfuegos
Ferman Cienfuegos, José Eduardo Sancho Castañeda, was the military commander of El Salvador’s Faribuno Marti Liberation Front (FMLN). His is also Plutarco Hernandez’s first cousin. He was born at the Hospital San Juan de Dios in San Jose Costa Rica on March 6, 1947 of a Costa Rican and father and Salvadoran mother. He was an active radical revolutionary from 1966 until recently, and for much of this period was military commander of the armed forces of the Faribundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN). He is the first cousin of Plutarco Hernandez and often visited his home in San Jose. Curiously, Cienfuegos began as a pacifist opponent of the war between El Salvador and Honduras in the 1960s. In 1970, he and his companions turned to violence, partly as the result of discussions initiated by Guatemala's FAR, Fuerza Armada Revolucionario which had camps in Santa Ana, El Salvador along the border. Cuba then trained a small number of FMLN activists in explosives, intelligence and counterintelligence. According to Cienfuegos, by robbing banks and kidnapping prominent Salvadoran and foreign businessmen for ransom, the FMLN was able to build up a war chest a capital account of some $184 million, some of which he gave to the Nicaraguan Sandinista Front through his cousin Plutarco.
José Eduardo Sancho
"... the ideal military strategy is to avoid such conflicts altogether because, once they start, the only viable alternative that remains-and is it at best an extremely difficult one-is somehow to negotiate it to a peaceful and before it becomes not merely bloody but absurd."
“ Peace, not war, is the hard part.”
(the below is a translation of an internal FMLN directive made available to author by Cienfuegos)
"Divide the United States and Its Congress”
"The failure of our two attempts to open a direct dialogue with the government of the United States led us to take the peculiar step of opening an office in Washington DC, which, from 1981 on, actively lobbied the Congress of the United States. It was during our earliest lobbying efforts that we first made contact with Bernie Aronson, then working in Congress, who became both a friend and ally and who, after he became Assistant Secretary Of State for Latin America in 1990, played a decisive role in changing the course of events Salvador from the pathway of war to the pathway of peace."
Encarnación Baldivia - Comandante Tigrillo
Biography: One of the Contras most famous field commanders was Encarnación Baldivia Chavarria, Comandante Tigrillo, who is a living legend in Nicaragua among the mountains peasants. A peasant farmer with little formal education who speaks Spanish with a heavy campesino [peasant] accent, and who still makes his living raising beings, corn and a few cattle on a small milpa [small holder farm] reachable only by four-wheel drive. Tigrillo may well have been the best natural guerrilla leader produced this century in Latin America, a claim not lightly made. Slight of build and, at first appearance, unusually modest and withdrawn, he has a native charisma that very quickly draws others to him. He was just 23 years old in 1977 when he first went to war, joining the anti-Somoza Sandinista guerrillas in his home region near La Concordia. Although lacking in any formal education, Tigrillo quickly proved to be a natural soldier and leader, and rose through the ranks to become the Sandinista equivalent of a company commander. At first, after Somoza fell Tigrillo join the new Sandinista army [the EPS, or Ejercito Popular Sandinista – Sandinista People’s Army] and was commissioned a First Lieutenant. But he soon became disaffected with the radical course the Sandinista revolution began to take immediately after taking power, which he considered especially injurious of independent peasants, left the EPS, went into the mountains and, in 1980, took up arms against the Sandinistas by organizing one of the first anti-Sandinista guerrilla groups, initially known as the MILPAS. For the next three years he led one of the three major MILPAS guerrilla groups and rose to commando one of the Contras biggest Fuerzas de Tarea, Task Forces.
"Before I got into my first war I was just a peasant farmer raising beans and rice on my Milpa near the town of La Concordia up in the mountains of Jinotega.... One day, a small Sandinista patrol that was operating clandestinely near my farm showed up at my place. After we talked for a while, they asked me to go with them.... I wasn't sure I wanted to do that at first. I knew I didn't like the Somoza Guardia because they acted like savages... so at first I told them I didn't want to go with them. But when they came back about eight days later I had changed my mind."
"In short, we liberated Nicaragua from the Somoza regime. That had been our only goal while I was fighting and so it made me very happy because that was the reason why I got into the war in the first place."
"Then the Sandinistas asked me to stay on as an officer, and I agreed. But then some of the higher officers above me began saying that although we liberated Nicaragua, that wasn't enough, and there are other battles to come. They said that now we had to liberate El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala and eventually Costa Rica, because those other countries were still dominated by the Yankee imperialists, who were our real enemy."
"A lot of what they talked about had to do with praise for Cuba, and I remember that they were especially admiring of "Che" Guevara."
"What we did begin to do was go on military missions against our own people, and what I then saw was savagery being committed by us against Nicaraguans, not foreigners, and especially against our own peasants."
"The Americans Manipulate the Peace Process and Us"
"There was a lot of pressure for us to negotiate with the Sandinistas, especially from the Americans....... We were very unhappy and said so to the CIA's station chief, who has detained and shipped five of us off to Miami."
"Later we found out what many others found out first, that the peace was very badly negotiated."
Quilali, Nicaragua, circa 1978 - Pedro Joaquin Gonzalez Comandante Dimas with four then Sandinista comrades. At the time, Dimas was commander of a Segovian highlands guerrilla unit. But he had already come to believe that the Sandinista revolution was not what it claimed to be but was playing a double game. So he began in secret to play a double hame, gathering together a small group of like-minded future anti-Sandinista guerrillas. In 1979 when the Sandinista’s triumphed, he was made a Major in the Sandinista Army. When his anti-Sandinista activities were discovered, he took them into the mountains, organized them as Milpa insurgents, the seed from which the Contra movement grew. This photo was given to the author by Dimas’ wife Marine, herself an anti-Sandinista activist (author’s collection).
Yamales, Honduras, 1988 - Part of a Contra unit preparing to infiltrate into Nicaragua’s Segovian mountains as part of a Contra Fuerza de tarea, or Task Force (author’s collection).
Oscar Sobalvarro, Comandante Ruben
From 1980 to 1983 Oscar Sobalvarro García was Culebra. In 1983 he became Rubén, after Nicaragua's premier poet Rubén Dario. Towards the end of the war he became the commander, Chief of Staff, of the of the main Contra army. After the war ended, he became President of the Asociacion Civica Resistencia Nicaraguense, the Contras main postwar veteran’s organization. The label "Contra" was given to them by their enemies. From the perspective of the Sandinistas and their sympathizers that was not an unreasonable label, standing as it did for counterrevolutionaries. But the Contras considered themselves, not the Sandinistas, to be the legitimate defenders of Nicaraguan national traditions against internationalism. They also considered themselves, not the Sandinistas, the legitimate heirs to Sandino. Like Sandino, and unlike the Sandinistas, they were almost to a man and woman stanch Liberals and convinced nationalists. The historical evidence seems to support their claim, since virtually all the soldiers of Sandino's army were, as they were, from Nicaragua's Segovia highlands peasantry. In fact, Sandino’s army had almost exclusively consisted of their fathers, grandfathers or cousins. From their perspective, Sandino's name had simply been hijacked by the radical branch of the Sandinista Front.
"My family is of peasant origin. But my father was a minor local magistrate during the Somoza period. So even before the fall of Somoza, and despite the presence of many members of my family in the ranks of those fighting against the government, my father and I came under pressure from the Sandinistas."
Washington, DC, 1995, Office of Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) – Here Senator Reid, center, is meeting with four former Contra leaders. Oscar Sobalvarro is seated on the Senator’s right. Senator Reid was not a supporter of the Contra War. But he was very much a supporter of democratic elections. So, when the former Contras were found to be on the verge of being disenfranchised during Nicaragua’s 1995 presidential elections, Reid came to their aide. His intervention helped force the Nicaraguan government to assure they were able to vote. The author, who escorted the former Contras during their visit to Washington, is seated on the right (author’s collection).
"Unlike the peasants in western Nicaragua around the big cities who rarely own land and it usually worked on big plantations as laborers, almost all the peasants in the mountains own their own land. They are also by tradition Liberals, so they were from the very beginning treated like enemies of the revolution and reacted just as you would expect to this treatment.”
"From the very beginning of their taking power, the Ortega Brothers made it impossible for Nicaraguans to live in peace unless they were prepared to submit themselves completely to the Sandinista government's political model, which involves the expropriations of properties, jailing people without trial, psychological manipulation and physical torture. Opposing what they were doing could easily get you killed."
Angelica Maria was one of the best known Contra woman warriors. When the Sandinistas began their final push against Somoza in 1975, she was the child of seven when they began their revolution she was an innocent of 11. By the age of 14 she was of battle-hardened combat veteran, having gone from innocent to warrior at the tender age indeed. She was both a winner and a loser in the process. She spent almost 7 years at war and carries shrapnel in her body and bullet scars in her arms to prove it, and yet considers herself lucky because she survived and landed on her feet. Most Americans might consider washing dishes in a Miami Burger King failure. But for a mountain peasant woman from Nicaragua who spent most of her adult life at war, merely being alive, free and in the United States is a resounding success.
"My third brush with war was less of battle than political confrontation, but it was terribly important to me so much so that I don't like even to talk about it. It was after the Sandinistas literacy crusade began. They began teaching in school that now the Sandinistas in were in charge our world was going to change. They talked against the Church against families against the Americans-we hardly knew who they were then-and praised Fidel Castro Cuba and the Russians. My mother pulled us out of school and had some fights with them over what they were teaching….One day a group of Sandinistas came by and threw a hand grenade into our yard. I was watching when it happened. My mother was picking some chayotes (a kind of squash) and a grenade exploded right next to her and tore her insides apart. It also killed my three day old baby brother. I knew the people who killed my mother; they were sent by the Sandinistas. I had just celebrated my 12th birthday. I was terribly angry and all sorts of childish fantasies of revenge. That day changed my life completely”
“My first combat was an ambush. I was scared of it managed to control myself. Anyone who says they aren't scared is lying. With so many bullets flying around, you never know when there would be one with your name on it. But I fought nonetheless.”
“After a few months I went back to the base in Honduras and they sent me to a leadership course, and then back into Nicaragua with a motherly unit as a small unit leader (roughly squad leader). That's the way I went through the war, going into Nicaragua to fight and then returning."
"I remember that at that point there was a Guatemalan army officer began teaching a Ranger course. I was the only woman who went to it. I had my doubts that I would be able to go through the training, but Rubén said I was perfectly capable so I accepted the assignment. I was the only woman they thought could do it, and I did. The Ranger course was tough. We had to run through some very difficult obstacle courses and there were lots of problems with barb wire, minefields and night operations. There were 80 students, my number was 43, and only half of us made it through. We graduated on holy week."
“I got along very well with my male companions in combat. The relations between men and women in combat are perfectly normal. It's only those outside the war who think it strange….Sex really doesn't matter very much. In my case I usually had a liga who was like a husband, and all the other commandos respected us as if we were a married couple even though we really weren't. There really wasn't anything a woman couldn't do in combat. Both of us sometimes cried. Both of us sometimes ran."
Salomon Osorno Coleman, Comandante Blass
Comandante Blass is an ethnic Miskito Indian, born in the Nicaraguan Mosquitia hamlet of Kum on the Rio Coco, that marks the north eastern border between Nicaragua and Honduras. In 1987 he was elected General Commander of YATAMA, the Miskito Indian resistance Army, making him the commander of the second largest Native American army of the 20th century after that of Mexico’s Emiliano Zapata. His is one of the biggest successes of the postwar period. After the Contra war ended he resettled himself and his family in Managua, went to a Catholic university in Managua where he received a dual degree in law and social sciences in 1999, and became a member of the Nicaraguan National Assembly.
Salomon Osorno Coleman
"To our great regret, once they gained power the Sandinistas demonstrated that their message had simply been a form of propaganda designed to help them win the war with the support of the people and that they had no intention of keeping their promises. ...it became clear very quickly that the primary objective of the Sandinista front was to implant Marxism in Nicaragua."
"In April of 1980 the conflict turned violent. The Sandinistas imposed a state of siege in the region, and army troops moved into the indigenous communities... not a few young man went into the mountains. ... On May 9, 1981 we fled because of the unyielding persecution of my people by Sandinista state security and their repression of all indigenous peoples of the Mosquitia. At that point I abandoned the peaceful approach to struggle and joined the the ranks of the new guerrilla, as then not even named, made up of young Miskito Indians preparing to fight against the Sandinista militarily."
La Mosquitia, Nicaragua, circa 1986. A Miskito Indian guerrilla with his family during a lull in the fighting.