A Conversation About Sandinistas and Contras, Thirty Years Later


A camera and tourist stuff used to spy in Nicaragua during the Cold War

A few days ago I was visiting the Military Museum in Naples FL. It’s a typical veterans museum, the same type found in many cities across the country, with display cases full of uniforms, medals, perhaps some period weapons, and model tanks and airplanes.

But tucked away in a corner I was surprised to see a display case labelled “The War in Nicaragua”. I assumed it referred to the US invasion during the 1930’s, which is rather an unusual subject for museums like this—they tend to focus mostly on WW2, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf/Afghanistan.

Looking inside, I got an even bigger surprise—it wasn’t about the 1930’s invasion at all, but about the Contra War, in which US-backed insurgents tried to overthrow the leftist Sandinista Government in Nicaragua during the 1980’s. This was a subject near to my heart—the interventions in Nicaragua and El Salvador were enormously controversial and there was a thriving anti-war movement at the time opposing US involvement, of which I was a part. I had also traveled to Nicaragua in February 1988 as part of an anti-war group.

So I casually mentioned to the volunteer who was working the museum that I had been in Nicaragua during the Contra War. And to my utter shock, he answered that he had been there too—he was one of the US military personnel that had been secretly sent to Central America to help train the Contras and to gather intelligence for a possible US invasion. The items in the display case that told the story, were his.

So, for the next hour, we each pulled up a chair and, in a friendly debate, re-fought a fight from thirty years ago……

T-shirt given to US personnel who had been assigned to training the Contras

In 1979, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation, a conglomeration of left-leaning guerrilla groups that had been fighting in the Nicaraguan mountains for years, defeated the forces of US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza and entered Managua in triumph. US President Jimmy Carter, who had made “human rights” a central issue of his foreign policy and who had previously been making unsuccessful efforts behind the scenes to push Somoza to step down and hold free elections, shed no tears for the dictatorship, but also had to face Cold War realities—the Cubans and Soviets had been backing the Sandinista guerrillas, as they were also backing insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala. Carter tried to keep the new Sandinista Government out of the Soviet orbit by offering economic aid; at the same time, he cut off economic aid to the El Salvadoran Government as punishment for its numerous human rights violations.

In 1981, however, Ronald Reagan took office, and US policy in Central America veered sharply. In Reagan’s eyes, the Sandinistas were mere tools of the USSR, and they required a military response. With US funding, weapons and support, an insurgent movement was organized called the “Contras”, consisting mostly of former members of Somoza’s military. The Contras operated from bases in Honduras and Costa Rica, conducting cross-border rids into Nicaragua to hit soft targets before running back across the border.

For the next eight years, there would be political battles in Congress over US support for the Contras. Meanwhile, the largest anti-war movement since Vietnam appeared in the US—the Central American peace movement opposed US intervention, and denounced US support both for the Contras and for military dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala who were slaughtering their own people. We also opposed any US military invasion in Central America. When the US refused to admit refugees from the war-torn countries, the “sanctuary” movement appeared, which illegally smuggled refugees into American cities.

At that time, I was a 20-something activist in Pennsylvania who was active in both the Central America peace movement and the sanctuary movement. In February 1988, just a few months before the ceasefire, I went to Nicaragua as part of a short-term delegation with the anti-war group Witness for Peace—I was in Managua, Matagalpa, Rio Blanco and Bocana de Paiwas. The Contras had done quick hit-and-run raids on Paiwas while I was there, coming in at night, firing off a couple RPGs and machine-gun bursts, then running off into the jungle. When I got back, I became a speaker for local organizations about the war. I also got a visit from the FBI.

The museum volunteer, meanwhile, was a 30-something in the US Army intelligence branch. Sometime in the 1980’s (he was a bit circumspect about specifics, partly because he wasn’t sure if anything was still classified) he was selected as a “training officer”, whose job it would be to instruct the Contra forces how to use the weapons they were being provided with. The US was sending a small number of old M-14 rifles to the Contras, but most of the guns they were being given were foreign: many of the AK-47s captured during the invasion of Grenada went to the Contras, as well as some of the Argentine FN-FALs captured by the British in the Falklands. The contras were also instructed in the use of Soviet-made RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades, and American LAWs (“Light Anti-tank Weapon” rocket launchers) and Redeye anti-aircraft missiles. He was sent periodically to secret training bases set up in Honduras, where he spent a couple months at a time instructing groups of Contra recruits.

After a time, he was assigned to a new task—intelligence gathering. Under a secret program, American military personnel were sent into Nicaragua from the US as ordinary tourists. They wore civilian clothes and carried cameras and passports. When they saw things that were of specific interest to military intelligence, such as police stations, roadway checkpoints or electrical stations, they would play the tourist and ask some passerby to take a photo of them, carefully posed so that the target of interest was in the background. One of the items on display at the museum was the 35mm camera that the volunteer had used during intelligence-gathering missions in Nicaragua.

When I asked how much the Army knew about the groups of American peaceniks in Nicaragua, he said that they knew where we were all the time, and they would occasionally put an intelligence officer in with the groups. For the most part, they tried to keep the Contras out of areas where they knew there were Americans, since having a US citizen killed in a Contra attack would cause political difficulties. But that wasn’t always possible, and several times there were Contra attacks in places where they knew there were Americans. One of the places in Nicaragua that both the volunteer and I had been was the grave of Benjamin Linder, an American peace worker who had been killed during a Contra raid.

Another thing I asked about was the effect that the anti-war movement had on the administration’s plans for a possible invasion. (There were regular anti-war rallies in DC at the time that attracted 75,000 people.) He answered that he wasn’t involved in any of that planning, and that decision was made way above his pay grade, but his own view was that while the anti-war movement had a political effect in the US (the uncomfortable experience of the Vietnam War protests was only twenty years previous), the lack of popular support within Nicaragua for the Contras convinced many in the military that an invasion was not a particularly good idea, and would have left American troops embroiled in a new insurgency which would not have gotten public support back home. In other words, another Vietnam.

He was still unrepentedly a supporter of the Reagan Administration’s actions in Central America, and I am still unrepentedly an opponent. For the most part, the reasons we gave each other are still the same reasons we both gave back in the 1980’s. He viewed the Contra War as a heroic effort to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining control of Central America, and I viewed it as yet another in a long string of imperial American interventions in support of brutal dictatorships who supported our interests.

In the end, we shook hands and agreed that, while we remained on different sides, we were both glad that it ended without an invasion.


3 thoughts on “A Conversation About Sandinistas and Contras, Thirty Years Later

  1. Great post.

    Thirty years ago, during my bookstore decade, a coworker got me listening to the music of Canadian leftist Christian musician Bruce Cockburn, who had a _lot_ to say about Latin America. With songs like “Dust and Diesel”, “A Tree Falls”, “Call It Democracy”, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”, and this one (which is less up-tempo but more specific to the topic), he was yet another positive influence in undoing my ultraconservative upbringing: “…now Washington panics at U-2 shots of Cuban-style latrines”

  2. Lenny,

    I’m curious if, during your 1980’s activism work, you ever crossed paths with the State College, PA, peace group, Central PA Citizens for Survival, which was co-founded by my mother. (I never did like that name — sounds too much like a survivalists’ outfit, imo) Over the many years of its existence, CPCS did a great deal of educational (workshops, movie series, “teach-ins”, Central American speakers), political (dealing with, among other things, dear Rep. William Clinger), and fund-raising (a very successful annual Fair Trade holiday fair before anyone really knew what Fair Trade was) work against the Contra War and in support of the people of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

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