Former Contras Bemoan Ortega's Return to Power In Nicaragua

In the village of La Lima, Efraím Subalbarro, left, a former contra commander, said he felt
In the village of La Lima, Efraím Subalbarro, left, a former contra commander, said he felt "totally abandoned" by the political process. In Matagalpa, Claudia Peña, also a former fighter, said she was given land seven years ago as part of a compensation program but never received a title, and local Indians have made a competing claim to the land. (Photos By N.c. Aizenman -- The Washington Post)
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 12, 2006

SAN BENITO, Nicaragua -- As a young insurgent fighting to overturn Nicaragua's Marxist-led Sandinista revolution during the 1980s, Martín Laguna chose the alias "Comandante Amargura," Spanish for "Commander Bitterness," to protest his suffering at the hands of a government that had gunned down his father and confiscated his family's cattle ranch.

But 16 years after the Sandinistas' fall ushered in a new era of democracy in Nicaragua, Laguna's old code name seems just as apt.

Official promises to compensate him for the expropriated property never came through, so he has joined about 100 other former fighters squatting in flimsy shacks on this desolate plain outside the capital, Managua.

Jobs are scarce, so he feeds his four children by scavenging for firewood to sell by the highway.

And as if those humiliations weren't enough, last week Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader whom Laguna risked his life to overthrow, won back the presidency through a democratic election.

"I can't believe it," Laguna, a stocky man of 52, said disgustedly in a recent interview inside his home of sticks and plastic tarp. "After all these years, our enemy is going to have power over us once more. I never, never imagined this would happen."

A week after divisions among his opponents enabled Ortega, 61, to eke out a victory with less than 40 percent of the vote, Nicaraguans of all political stripes are still reeling. But perhaps none feel more personally affronted than the surviving foot soldiers of the U.S.-funded anti-Sandinista force, known as contras. Through a controversial, decade-long campaign of ambushes and sabotage, the contras, estimated to number as high as 12,000 at their peak, helped pressure Ortega into holding elections in 1990 in which voters swept him from office.

Now some former contras view Ortega's return in almost apocalyptic terms. Although Ortega cast himself as the candidate of "reconciliation," Laguna's neighbor, Leiva Ramírez, a petite woman with dark, intense eyes, predicted that it is only a matter of time before he reinstates unpopular policies of his previous 11-year rule, such as expropriating property, rationing food and jailing dissenters.

"But we won't surrender to him!" shouted Ramírez, 39, as her voice began to shake with emotion. "If we have to, we'll go back to the mountains where we are strong and fight again. Better to die in battle than to stay here and be killed off one by one."

Other former contra fighters interviewed were more sanguine, arguing that Ortega has probably mellowed over the years. Their concern was that his victory would embolden his more radical supporters to harass former contra fighters in the many urban neighborhoods and rural villages across Nicaragua where old foes now live side by side.

Eighty miles north of the San Benito encampment, in the remote mountain village of La Lima, Efraím Subalbarro, 42, said that Sandinista activists had already twice stopped by his house in the middle of the night.

"They pulled up in a truck and stood outside shouting obscenities and threats for about half an hour. It was very tense," said Subalbarro, a short, muscular man who commanded 45 fighters during the contra war.

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