- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

The Nicaraguan resistance, the so-called Contra movement, has never had a good press. Indeed, the U.S. and European media plus a wide assortment of academics and experts have long demonized its members as killers in the service of Somoza henchmen and the Reagan administration to squash yet another human, albeit leftist revolution. Any doubts about that were supposedly settled when the Iran-Contra scandal came to light in the last part of 1986.
Well, guess again. Timothy Brown says the picture painted above bears as much resemblance to reality as the one belonging to Dorian Gray. Mr. Brown is in a position to know. He is, among other things, a retired career diplomat with extensive experience in Latin America, one of his last postings being senior liaison officer with the Nicaraguan anti-Sandinista insurgents, the Contras of Ollie North fame. Actually, as Mr. Brown points out, the term "Contra" was employed by the enemy, the Sandinistas, indicating the supposed reactionary nature of the resistance. Contras referred to themselves as "Commandos."
"The Real Contra War" is not a complete history of their struggle against the self-styled Marxist regime that defeated Anastasio Somoza in mid-1979. Indeed, not all the resistance is discussed at length. The so-called Southern Front on which the Central Intelligence Agency had pinned so much hope gets only passing mention. Ditto the Caribbean coast Indian groups, including the Miskitos. Instead, Mr. Brown largely focuses on the northern front which underwent numerous name changes, but in the end settled for Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense.
Using available literature including archives, oral histories, and scores of interviews, Mr. Brown radically departs from the well-worn conclusions of the Contra critics and even some of the fighters supporters and admirers.
First, the Commandos were hardly ever a Somocista operation. According to Mr. Browns tabulation, less than one percent had served in the Guardia although the Somoza myth was made at least credible by the fact that former officers of the dictator tended to be clustered at the command staff level. They, of course, were always more visible to journalists and other visitors not especially keen on getting too close to the men and women in the trenches facing heavily armed, Soviet-built, rocket spewing helicopters.
Indeed, there were more ex-Sandinista fighters in their ranks than Somoza men. But the bulk of the forces more than 90 percent were, in Mr. Browns term, highlanders. Poor, illiterate, mostly Indian, and residents for millennia in Nicaraguas mountainous Segovia region, they had resisted outsiders from pre-Columbian times. They fought in turn the coastal Indians (brutally eliminated by the conquistadores), the Spanish, the Nicaraguan elite of the 19th and 20th centuries, and not least, the U.S. Marines. The Sandinistas were possibly the most brutal of the outsiders, but they too were ineffective.
Ronald Reagan liked to call these people freedom fighers. According to Mr. Brown and it is a persuasive argument they were fighting for freedom other than their own and that freedom was mostly the freedom to be left alone. Like Scots highlanders, Chechens, Kurds, Hakkas, Montagnards, Basques, Berbers, and West Virginia hillbillies, they didnt like strangers on their mountain. Lowlanders may despise them, but highlanders are and were seldom beaten into submission.
And so it was with Nicaraguas indios, descendants of Chibchan tribes that moved into the Nicaraguan highlands from South America eons ago. Although constituting about half of Nicaraguas total population they remain at the margins of Nicaraguan society. The first election they were allowed to fully participate in didnt occur until 1996.
The author details how the Indios organized a resistance which proved impermeable to the Sandinistas best efforts to dismantle it. Not even an on-again, off-again support from the United States changed their numbers much. After the final cut-off of aid in 1988, there were more volunteers than ever far more than could be supplied with arms. Supporting some nearly 30,000 warriors was an infrastructure that was at least 10 times larger, according to Mr. Brown.
Decentralized, based on ancient clan and inter-clan ties, they proved impossible to control from the top, infiltrate from the outside or direct from Washington or Tegucigalpa, for that matter. And like true mountain folk, the Commandos never had any intention of overthrowing the Sandinistas, much less march on Managua. As a consequence, neither side defeated the other.
The Sandinistas, in the end, defeated themselves with their junior-sized imperial and martial ambitions which alienated lowland Nicaraguans as well, especially mothers who saw their sons impressed into units that served as cannon fodder for Sandinista ambitions. Consequently, after the electoral defeat of 1990, Daniel Ortega and company remain to this day in the political wilderness. Better that way.


Roger Fontaine served on the White House National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration.

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