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.
But perhaps most upsetting to the former contra fighters is the notion that Ortega's victory could represent the final step in the contras' long descent into political irrelevance.
"We were the ones who gave Nicaraguans their democracy, and now we've been totally abandoned," said Subalbarro, who said he watched two younger brothers die in battle. "It's like we don't matter anymore."
The contras' loss of clout is at least partly due to their lack of coherence to begin with. Armed, trained and largely run by the CIA, the insurgency was dominated at its top tier by former members of the notoriously brutal National Guard that propped up dictator Anastasio Somoza until the Sandinistas deposed him in their 1979 revolution. A diverse group of civilian leaders, among them prominent business figures and former Sandinistas disenchanted with Ortega's rule, offered the contras a more palatable public face but exercised little power behind the scenes.
The rank and file, meanwhile, was filled mainly by peasants from the north and Miskito Indians from the Atlantic coast, many of them women and teenagers. They chafed under Sandinista rules that favored agricultural cooperatives, and resented the presence of Cuban doctors and teachers promoting an atheistic worldview.
After Ortega's loss in 1990, most of the contra civilian leadership joined anti-Ortega factions that have coalesced and divided and coalesced again in a dizzying series of alliances. Among the more surprising twists in this contretemps was the decision this year by Jaime Morales -- a former banker and contra negotiator whose home Ortega occupied after the 1979 revolution -- to run for vice president on Ortega's ticket.
A small cadre of contra fighters did establish a party, known as the Nicaraguan Resistance Party, dedicated to representing former contra combatants. But it has been beset by frequent internal squabbles, the most recent of which erupted in September when the party's president, Salvador Talavera, infuriated many members by signing a public "peace agreement" with Ortega.
Such moves at the top have only compounded the disillusionment felt by many lower-ranking former contras over the level of assistance they have received from democratic administrations that succeeded Ortega.
After years of fighting, many had lost their lands to the Sandinistas. Others like Subalbarro, whose family was able to keep its cattle ranch in the northern state of Jinotega, felt it was unsafe to return. "Everybody there knows what operations you were responsible for, and there may be those who want to take their revenge," he said.
Violeta Chamorro, who defeated Ortega in the 1990 presidential election, originally promised to grant each demobilized contra either 50 manzanas of land, about 86 acres, on which to raise cattle or 15 manzanas, about 26 acres, for crops. But that commitment was based on estimates that put the contra force at 5,000, noted Alfonso Sandino, a former contra spokesman who heads the government agency in charge of compensating demobilized combatants. When 22,000 came forward claiming to be former contras, "it was clear that the original commitment was totally unrealistic. Nicaragua just doesn't have sufficient land to fulfill it," Sandino said.
Furious, small groups of contras rearmed and staged violent protests several times during the early 1990s, at one point occupying the Colombian Embassy in Managua. Each time, the crisis was soothed with more government promises.
Today, Sandino said, about 90 percent of former contra fighters have received some land -- albeit in smaller parcels than originally envisioned. The distribution, however, was haphazard, and contras' families often did not receive title to the new land, just vague permission to relocate there.
That has caused serious difficulties for Claudia Peña, 35, who moved onto a government-granted patch in the northern department of Matagalpa seven years ago.
Soon afterward, local Indians made a competing claim against the property and began grazing cattle there. Without a title, Peña and her husband have been unable to defend their claim to the land.
"We're supposed to have eight manzanas of land," she said. "But the truth is, we're only able to raise crops on about one."
One of her young sons sat on the ground nearby, watching her with a pinched expression. He's hungry, she explained, but there wasn't going to be enough for dinner that night. Instead, she said, "I'll give the children water to take away their appetite."
When she was asked whether this was the future she imagined back when she was fighting in Nicaragua's northern jungles, Peña's eyes filled with tears.
"No. We wanted peace so we could have a chance at a decent living," she answered. "This is not what I was fighting for."