Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 43 | Enero 1985



The Challenge of the Covert War

Envío team

On the morning of December 4, 200 members of the counterrevolutionary Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) ambushed a truck that was transporting 33 volunteer coffee harvesters toward a plantation in the department of Nueva Segovia. The gunfire killed many of the pickers instantly, while others were wounded. Jorge Luis Briones, one of the survivors, said that the contras drove their bayonets into the throats of the wounded and then set fire to the truck, burning the remaining survivors alive. Two of them were a peasant woman and her small child. Five days later, in a remote area of the department of Estelí, counterrevolutionaries ambushed a pickup truck belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture. Its passengers were the technician Manuel Llanes, his wife, and their maid. As Llanes saw the contras approaching the truck, he told the two women: “They’re probably going to kill me. If you want to save your lives, don’t tell them you’re my wife or my maid; say you don’t know me and I was just giving you a ride.” Both women tried to play along, but the maid was unable to help screaming as she saw the contras cut his wrists and gouge out his eyes before slitting his throat. They found her crying suspicious and decided to kidnap her. Ten days later, in the Atlantic Coast region, FDN forces attacked a Red Cross ambulance, killing a patient and wounding four first-aid attendants.

Such cases are typical examples of the counterrevolutionaries’ daily attacks on Nicaraguan civilians. Their war of attrition will be four years old in 1985.

The “covert” war

According to statistics provided by Nicaragua’s Ministry of Defense, counterrevolutionaries killed 72 civilians in the first half of December. Most of the victims were performing tasks related to the coffee harvest. The number of civilians slain by the contras in 1984 was close to 1,000, many of them children under the age of 12. The counterrevolutionaries have taken the lives of 134 children since 1982, and preliminary figures furnished by the Nicaraguan Social Security and Welfare Institute (INSSBI) indicate that the war has orphaned approximately 5,000 children.

Losses in terms of both human life and material destruction have been enormous. However, the FDN and the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) failed to attain their strategic goals for 1984.

Following their unsuccessful offensive in November and December 1983, the counterrevolutionaries concentrated their efforts on reorganizing for the first few months of 1984, while nevertheless maintaining a certain level of military operations. The counterrevolutionaries had planned to use the second trimester of 1984 to increase their military activities, which were to reach a climax in July. They were hoping to stage a spectacular blow that would have negative effects on both the fifth-anniversary celebration of the Sandinistas’ July 19 victory and voter registration, which was to begin in late July. Their main objective from August to October was to obstruct the election campaign and prepare major operations for the days surrounding the November 4 elections, in case the abstentionist forces did not succeed in preventing or postponing the elections.

Such military activity was designed not only to have a negative influence on the election process but also to continue to harm the country’s economy. These military plans were complemented by a political campaign against the Nicaraguan elections in the form of a boycott by pro-US parties. Had these plans met with success, the revolution would not have been legitimized by a vote, and economic damage to the economy would have been even greater than at present. Consequently, the standard of living would have decreased, and the stage for direct US intervention subsequent to Reagan’s reelection would have been set.

In order to attain its goals in 1984, the US administration sought to unite the FDN and ARDE. With Edén Pastora refusing to agree to the terms of the new alliance, ARDE suffered a split, and the FDN attempted to set up stable war fronts both in the southwest of Nicaragua and in the southeast, where Pastora’s troops were operating.

In the meantime, Pastora was wounded in an attempt on his life, a Sandinista offensive dealt severe blows to his forces, the CIA decreased its aid to his group, and he found himself increasingly isolated from the two main counterrevolutionary tendencies: the FDN and the rest of ARDE. In this context, Brooklyn Rivera, the primary Miskito leader in the ARDE alliance, agreed to engage in talks with the Sandinista government. Although Rivera’s armed organization Misurasata has not yet put down its weapons, the events above illustrate to what extent the FDN began to dominate the counterrevolutionary military scene in 1984.

Despite the FDN’s move into southern Nicaragua, the country’s northern mountainous areas have remained the major target for FDN military activity. In 1984, the FDN also created regional commands intended to coordinate the military task forces, which had previously operated on an independent basis. The FDN also tried to perfect its logistics, especially its radio-communications system and supply lines for food and military equipment. Another important component of the contras’ plans was to win themselves support from the peasant population in remote areas in the north of the country. This would have allowed them to establish contacts with their rearguard bases in Honduras.

The assault on Estelí and other key locations in Nueva Segovia resulted in failure, as did attempts to control important towns in Matagalpa and Jinotega. The contras were also unsuccessful in their efforts to control the road to Rama, the main access route to the Atlantic Coast, as well as in taking over towns in the south, such as San Carlos. This series of contra defeats enabled the nation to carry out its election process in a normal fashion.

Ministry of Defense figures show that approximately 1,500 armed encounters of different sorts took place between counterrevolutionary forces and the Nicaraguan army over the course of 1984. The same source revealed that some 3,000 counterrevolutionaries and 1,000 government soldiers were killed during the year.

Although the contras did not accomplish their aims, they have neither ended nor diminished their military activities. In September, when they realized that they could no longer hope to carry out their original plans, they began to rely more heavily on basic guerrilla tactics, avoiding direct confrontations with the Sandinista army. This allowed them to extend their activities over a larger land area, while striving to establish a rearguard in the mountains of Jinotega and Matagalpa.

On December 26, the Minister of Defense, Humberto Ortega, estimated that 8,000 counterrevolutionaries were operating militarily within Nicaragua. Their chief objective, now that the elections have passed, is to attack the coffee harvest and do as much economic damage as possible. (In 1984, material damages caused by the counterrevolutionaries amounted to nearly $255 million, which represents 70% of the annual value of Nicaragua’s exports.)

It would seem that guerrilla tactics will be the contras’ main form of military combat in the coming months. Of course, this does not mean that they will refrain from regrouping and attacking major objectives. The Sandinista army is presently incorporating new combatants into its ranks in order to maintain sufficient force for such guerrilla warfare and is organizing the civilian population as a rearguard in areas not directly affected by the war.

An especially important aspect of the war, at its present stage, is the Nicaraguan air force. Information concerning this subject has been widely distorted on an international level.

The fundamental sources of FDN supplies are located in neighboring countries, primarily Honduras, and are transported into Nicaragua by air. Many supply flights have been detected, and they remain indispensable for the contras, who have never been able to attack major military targets where they might have succeeded in supplying themselves with large amounts of military equipment and ammunition.

In 1984, the Nicaraguan army detected 1,326 flights by foreign aircraft over the Nicaraguan territory. (For 1983, this figure was 620.) 480 of these 1326 flights were made in aircraft belonging to the US armed forces. (This figure was 200 in 1983.) Most of these violations are intended to provide supplies for the counterrevolutionaries and information to guide their movements.

With the above in mind, one can easily understand the Nicaraguan government’s interest in obtaining aircraft and aerial-defense means. This is also the context in which one must interpret the Reagan administration’s attempts to prevent a strengthening of Nicaragua’s air force with allegations to the effect that Nicaragua wants to acquire new aircraft in order to invade its neighbors and represents a threat to US security. Despite US efforts to the contrary, Nicaragua has reinforced its air force with modern helicopters, which are particularly effective in dealing with guerrilla warfare.

According to the London International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States’ Central American allies (excluding Panama) have nine times Nicaragua’s air power. The same source reports that Nicaragua has 12 combat planes, as compared to 105 in the other three Central American nations (59 in El Salvador, 30 in Honduras, and 16 in Guatemala). The US effort to prevent Nicaragua from strengthening its air power can only be intended to avoid a strategic blow to the counterrevolutionaries.

The maneuvers:
A strong base of support for the contras

In order to support the “covert” war on Nicaragua, the US Congress has approved almost $100 million for the contras over the last three years. This funding was temporarily suspended in June of 1984. In March, Congress will again begin open discussions as to whether to renew this aid. However, despite the fact that the contras are no longer receiving funds approved by Congress, they have continued their aggression against the Nicaraguan people.

If we estimate the total number of counterrevolutionaries at 12,000 (comprising those operating within Nicaragua and on standby in neighboring countries) and their average salary at $500 per month, just one year of wages amounts to $72 million. Although these figures are strictly conjectural, they do help to demonstrate that the funds allotted by the US Congress represent only a small proportion of what the war on Nicaragua is actually costing. It should be remembered that expenses include not only salaries but also sophisticated weapons, communications equipment, air and naval support, training centers, etc.

According to counterrevolutionary leaders, several private organizations donated $5 million when the US cut its official financial aid in June 1984. Considering that private aid has probably increased in the face of Congressional opposition to continued funding, and without making allowance for US press information regarding CIA links with this so-called “private” aid, the objective observer will see the immense gap between those funds publicly declared and the real costs of the counterrevolutionary war. Who is making up the difference? How much is the CIA really supplying? What role is Israel playing? These questions are pertinent, but the crux of the matter seems to lie elsewhere.

US military maneuvers in the Central American region, especially in Honduras, appear to contribute substantially to the contras’ capacity to bridge their financial gap. Directed by the Pentagon and supported by its mammoth budget, these maneuvers appear almost free from both Congressional power and the pressure of US public opinion. If Congress wanted to make fundamental changes in the course of the war on Nicaragua, one way would be to invoke the War Powers Act and stop or severely limit US military maneuvers in the region.

The joint maneuvers reinforce US influence in the countries where they take place and on the Central American armed forces participating in them. Although the US and Honduras are presently renegotiating their military agreements, they did not refrain in 1984 from carrying out a long series of joint maneuvers in Honduras: Kid Punch, Kiss World I, Blue Eye, Operation Cricket, etc. In December 1984, the King’s Guard III exercises continued in the Gulf of Fonseca (Pacific Coast) and in Honduran Miskito territory (Atlantic Coast). The Big Pine III maneuvers will take place from January to March, and the Granadero II maneuvers are presently being prepared. These are merely a few of the total regional maneuvers, the aims of which surpass specific US objectives with regard to Nicaragua.

Thus, the maneuvers provide powerful support for the war on Nicaragua: additional training, weapons, equipment, and the construction of infrastructure (roads, airstrips, military bases, etc.). This fact does not mean that the March Congressional decision on continued aid will lack significance, but it does place the upcoming debate in its proper perspective, while prompting observers to ask a fundamental question: Why has the US Congress not engaged in a discussion of the real costs of the war?

Despite recent domestic problems with the counterrevolutionaries, Honduras continues to go along with the US-planned maneuvers, and Costa Rica, under heavy economic pressure from the International Monetary Fund, also allows US military units to operate on its soil. Work is currently under way to enlarge Costa Rican airports in Upala, Alajuela, and Guanacaste; to widen highways that would serve military purposes in the event of a military attack on Nicaragua; and to improve naval facilities in the port of Puntarenas, near Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast.

Through their increasing involvement in the regional maneuvers and other complementary activities, members of the US armed forces are directly taking part in the war on Nicaragua. Some have already died while carrying out special missions. Therefore, one can readily understand why Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, supported by the US, have insisted so vigorously on changing the point in the September 7 Contadora Treaty that would prohibit international military maneuvers in Central America.

Domestic consolidation as a response to the war

From the perspective of the Reagan administration, the continuation or escalation of the war is all the more necessary now that the elections have strengthened Nicaragua’s domestic political situation. The seven parties that competed in the elections spent a good part of December preparing for the debates in the National Assembly, which will hold its first session on January 9. On January 6, after undergoing an internal conflict over whether or not to participate in the Assembly, the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) announced its decision to occupy the nine seats it had won in the elections.

For approximately the next two years, the Assembly’s primary task will be to write Nicaragua’s new constitution. The FSLN holds a majority in the Assembly (61 out of 96 seats) but not the two-thirds that are needed to win certain votes. At times, this situation will force the FSLN to negotiate alliances with the opposition parties. The forthcoming pluralistic debates will probably reinforce national unity in the face of the war. In spite of the significant ideological differences among the seven parties represented in the Assembly, their refusal to tolerate foreign aggression appears to be a common denominator.

Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinating Committee (CDN) is experiencing a difficult crisis. Its decision to abstain from the elections has reduced its credibility within Nicaragua. However, one of the CDN members, the Social Christian Party (PSC), has continued to seek a domestic audience and plans to carry out campaigns that will have an outside influence on the debates in the National Assembly. The PSC is presently restructuring its party in order to take part in the municipal elections that will be held once the new constitution has been written.

In the midst of this process of domestic consolidation, the Sandinista government initiated talks with the Nicaraguan Bishop’s Conference. Both parties described the conversations as beneficial and appointed commissions responsible for continuing the dialogue in a systematic manner following the January 10 inauguration of the new government.

Another positive element in the consolidation process is the preparation of a statute that will grant autonomy to the Miskitos and other ethnic groups of the Atlantic Coast region. The different Atlantic Coast groups involved in the preparation of the statute are currently in discussions with the Miskito counterrevolutionary leader, Brooklyn Rivera. Although no cease-fire agreement has yet been signed—Rivera himself was wounded in a clash while visiting an armed Miskito group—there seems to be optimism concerning the possibility of reaching basic accords in the coming months.

Throughout 1985, the new government will strive to strengthen the country’s wartime economy. Important steps in that direction have already been announced. These measures are intended to deal with the serious economic crisis caused by the counterrevolutionary war, the costs of transition toward a new type of economy, the international economic crisis, as well as the limitations and mistakes of the Sandinista government over the last five years.

While the country begins to prepare its constitution in the context of a new kind of pluralism and new measures are implemented in the hope of overcoming the economic costs of the war, the Sandinista armed forces are readapting their tactics and strategy in response to the contras’ increased reliance on guerrilla maneuvers.

Managua and the other cities of the Pacific Coast region, which have not been directly affected by the war, are strengthening their rearguard capacities. In the framework of this reinforcement, Managua continues to prepare to defend itself in the event of direct US intervention, a threat that can never be overlooked.

This is the context in which Nicaragua’s new government will be inaugurated on January 10. Already, more than 70 delegations from diverse countries and organizations have announced their intention to attend the inaugural ceremony, which will mark the beginning of a new stage in the Nicaraguan revolution.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


The Challenge of the Covert War

Father Fernando Cardenal’s Decision

An Interview with Nicaragua’s Second Political Party
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development