- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

MIAMI (AP) — At the end of Nicaragua’s civil war, Juan Gregorio Rodriguez traded his life as a Contra rebel for that of an auto mechanic in Florida. He kept in touch with other rebels and supported their political efforts, but mostly from afar.

That changed in 2006, when the Contras’ nemesis, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, was elected president, 16 years after his Soviet-backed government lost power in a vote that ended the guerrilla conflict in which roughly 30,000 people died.

His return to power has galvanized dozens of former Contras in the U.S. to plunge back into the politics of their Central American homeland, lobbying for support from the U.S. Congress and joining anti-Ortega movements with former colleagues in Nicaragua. Some even warn darkly that armed resistance is again a possibility.

What really disturbs these former Contras is Mr. Ortega’s plan to revive Sandinista neighborhood watch committees, which became his eyes and ears during his first presidency. Mr. Rodriguez and some other ex-Contras feel betrayed by compromises made by their former comrades in arms since the war. Some have even joined the Sandinistas: Vice President Jaime Morales is a former Contra spokesman.

“Many of our former leaders sold out to the Sandinistas. The leaders in the field were left to help the families of those who fought in the resistance,” said Mr. Rodriguez, who lives in Miami and was once known as Comandante Camilo. Now they wonder how “we’ve lost to the same enemy we fought,” he said.

The Contras disbanded before the 1990 election led to three consecutive anti-Sandinista governments. Some entered politics. Some continued to fight as irregulars, demanding benefits for ex-fighters or as bandits. Many struggled for jobs in a Nicaraguan economy devastated by years of war and Sandinista policies. And a few left for the U.S., even as other Nicaraguan refugees returned home.

The newly energized Contras in Florida say their opposition will be peaceful, but some suggest they could rearm if Mr. Ortega attempts to reinstate socialism or communism.

“We are trying to focus on civic efforts, to build political leaders,” said Salvador Marin, a surgeon who treated Contra rebels in the mountains during the 1980s. “When we started, we had pistols and hunting rifles and no experience. Through the years, we gained that experience and still have it. … A true war would depend on how extreme are the conditions imposed by Ortega.”

But Nicaragua’s army chief, Gen. Omar Halleslevens, says he sees no sign of Contras rearming there.

“We don’t have any information about some military movement of the Nicaraguan Resistance,” he told the Associated Press. “If it were happening, our intelligence agencies would already know.”

Former Contras who stayed in Nicaragua also seem to have no appetite for militancy.

“We had the experience to be led by heroic commanders,” former Contra commander Noel Valdez said in a phone interview from the Nicaraguan city of Matagalpa. “But we’re now in a context that is very different from the past.”

Mr. Ortega has made no sign of a return to Marxist policies such as land seizures, and he’s openly working with the Bush administration, which hopes to provide Nicaragua with $32 million this year for health care and anti-terror and drug programs.

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